Sunday, December 30, 2007

Bring on the Controversy!

Elementary History Teacher (EHT) has posted a wonderful reflection on the need to teach controversy. Controversy peaks our students interest, prompts them to look at ideas from various perspectives, and engages them in critical thinking. EHT's recent post serves as a wonderful reminder that good teaching is controversial!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Grading Woes

I'm frustrated with grading.

I'm exhausted by the process of tallying points and calculating percentages. It pains me every time I must write a letter grade at the top of a student's paper. Because regardless of how well they did, my students use grades to punish themselves for what they did not learn, or worse, they use grades to punish each other. I spend hours each night adding up mistakes, circling errors. It is a disheartening task - for both me and my students. And even though I deliberate over the comments and questions I will write on each student's essay, I know that most students will only quickly glance at the grade and stuff the offending paper into the black hole that is their backpack. I find it a futile exercise. Has a student ever learned anything from a grade? No. Students don't walk out of the classroom at the end of the day and declare, "Well, I think I internalized about 86% of that lesson" or "I think I'll retain 76% of that lecture for later use in life."

Students want to learn.

Grading kills learning.

The grading process is a form of punishment. Author Alfie Kohn has written a great deal about this. At its least harmful, the assigning of letters, points, and percentages is the carrot we use to bribe our students into performing. Students learn that they must look for the reward. We train them out of being self-motivated learners by placing that constant carrot in front of them. We reward those who learn to jump through our hoops. We punish students who seek to learn outside our perimeters. Students are not encouraged to learn for the sake of learning. Learning becomes something we undertake only when extrinsically motivated. At its worse, the letter grade looms like a machete, hacking down a student's potential, opportunities, and self-confidence. Bad marks typically do not act to motivate a student. Instead, low marks reinforce a student's sense of shame, worthlessness, and hopelessness.

In talking with a colleague today, I declared that I would be a much better teacher if I didn't have to grade everything. He agreed and shared his guilt over the growing stack of papers piling in his apartment. I nodded. I, too, have a growing stack of essays and poems at home to grade over the break. But my original comment wasn’t really about the amount of work. I enjoy reading my students' essays. I learn a great deal about how they think, how they make connections, and about who they are as individuals. I enjoy giving students feedback, talking with them about their writing process. However, it is the act of assigning a number value that I am frustrated with. It is so formal, so final. The letter grade marks an end to a particular lesson or unit where I do not think an end point always belongs.

I think this is why I have been so interested in incorporating more formative assessment techniques into my teaching. I find it incredibly valuable to think about assessment not as mere data collection but rather as a tool for learning. For that reason, I've stopped grading every draft, and instead have switched some of my assignments over to comment-only grading. No letters. No numbers. Just comments. Assessment should be for learning, not simply of learning. Students don’t stop learning how to craft their writing once they’ve received a letter grade on a particular essay. Writing, like learning, is a process. Is it fair to assign grades in the middle of the process?

Some students learn this process faster than others. Where one student might struggle with understanding organizational structures for expository writing, another might learn quickly. So does the 100% we give the fast learner on that particular essay mean that she has mastered the writing process? Of course not. So what does the percentage measure? Do we grade students on how quickly they are able to pick up a skill? I don’t think most educators want to think about learning as a race.

I did not enter teaching to grade students on how fast they can perform. Learning should be about helping all students practice and improve on their skills. Some will be able to master a skill quickly and move on. Others will need quite a bit of time and practice. It just seems to me that numbers and letter grades set artificial deadlines for learning.

But, what are the alternatives?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

More Than a Number

As the tenth grade honors English teacher, I have an interesting mix of students. And although I teach only honors this year, they are most certainly not a homogonous group. Within the honors courses I have a variety of levels in terms of student maturity, preparedness, discipline, and understanding. In talking with my students, some of them have very definite ideas about what they would like to do with their lives – writer, book editor, fashion designer - while others are still trying to figure out who they are, let alone what they would like to be doing ten years from now. Some of my students have a very narrow path laid out before them: I will get a 4.0 (unweighted), graduate valedictorian, go to Princeton, then to Harvard to become a doctor or lawyer or writer.

Lindsay, over at Students 2.0, recently posted a poignant reflection on what it means to be a student competing in our high-stakes testing, standardized educational system.
“The further into my high school career I go, the more my face, name, and personality gets traded out for a couple of numbers. It seems as though modern high school is becoming less about personal growth through learning…”
Since when did education become all about the numbers? My students take the PSATs, SATs, ACTs, the Pennsylvania state tests (PSSAs), and four times a year they take the district administered 4Sight tests. With all this testing, it seems as though we’ve lost sight on the individuals that sit in our classrooms.

But as responsible educators, I don’t think any of us stay awake a night worrying about what sort of numbers our schools are producing. I teach fifteen and sixteen year olds. I am concerned about the people that leave my classroom. I want my students to be critical, self-motivated, self-aware, questioning people. I don’t see my job as one that prepares future numbers. My job is to prepare thinkers. I want my students to be successful people, not just statistics on a page.

There is a growing divide between how we (students and teachers alike) are judged and current educational philosophy. Districts provide teachers with the “eligible content” from state tests to teach, while teachers struggle to find ways to incorporate authentic assessments and problem-solving opportunities to make learning meaningful. We are told by NCLB, state standards, and school boards that we need to teach “critical thinking” skills to help students reach adequate yearly progress. However, the criteria for evaluating whether or not students have attained said critical thinking skills often comes in the form of a multiple-choice bubble exam. Since when did it take creativity and problem-solving skills to bubble in a scantron?! The divide between how students (and more recently, teachers) are being held accountable is at odds with the skills that we say we want our students to have. The philosophy of education is at odds with its reality.

Our newspapers are filled with numbers comparing this district to that one, leaving our students caught in between. It is no wonder that Lindsay writes,
“…I plan to take my own future in my hands, all the while retaining who I am—not my numeric representation.”
I wonder how we will bridge the divide between who we want our students to be and how we judge them.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

I Know I Don't Know

I have relearned a very important lesson this evening: I know I know nothing.

Okay, perhaps nothing is a bit extreme. But after being directed to the recent EduBlog Awards list by Anne Davis over at EduBlog Insights, I am overwhelmed: so many wonderful blogs, so much information, so many ideas. I’ve only recently wandered into the edublogosphere; I’m still learning the language, figuring out the netiquette. Perusing the list of nominated blogs, I am awestruck.

I haven’t made it all the way through the list yet, but I thought I would share a few of my favorites:

Best Research Sharing Blog nominee -

Most Influential Blog Entry of 2007 nominee - “Did you know?” by Scott McLeod and Karl Fisch at Dangerously Irrelevant and their related wiki site, Shift Happens, and ”The Ripe Environment” at Discourse about Discourse

Best Teacher Blog nominee - Clay Burell’s Beyond School

Check out the list for yourself!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Typewriter vs. Blackberry

I am a digital immigrant. I remember typing my first high school essay on a typewriter, plunking down each key hard enough so the ink would leave its indelible mark on the bright white page. My ninth grade science teacher returned my essay on chlorofluorocarbons filled with red ink and asked me to revise the piece. I remember dreading the process of retyping the essay, my fingers slipping between the keys when I would miss the letter and having to dig through my mother’s desk drawer for the white-out because our typewriter did not have a correction ribbon. It was 1994 when I got my first PC; it had 386k of RAM.

In fifteen years, we’ve gone from typewriters to being able to type messages into phones, from white-out to auto-correct. In those fifteen years, the face of public education has changed dramatically as well. Teachers are not simply finding new ways to integrate technology into their classrooms, but are also rethinking how and what we teach. Today’s classrooms look very different than those of fifteen years ago or from those just five years ago.

Take for example my classroom. Five years ago I was teaching ninth grade English courses and an elective called Information Technology (Info. Tech.) where students in a special computer lab developed their skills using the various Microsoft applications. Students created tables and web pages in Word, spreadsheets in Excel, pie charts in Database, and learned to animate pictures and transitions in PowerPoint. Compare that to my classroom this past week where students working on laptops in my room used Google Docs and USB flash drives to save the research essays they started in class, took their Gilgamesh quiz online, responded to our reading of Elie Wiesel’s Night in an online discussion forum, and pulled up our weekly schedule and handouts from our classroom website. My classroom has gone digital.

The digital age has opened the doors of education. Students can access their grades at any time on the web, their homework, their schedule, they can email their teacher with a question at any point during the day or night. Technology has helped the classroom become more transparent. However, it is not without its challenges. With the ease of access, our students have become accustomed to the instant gratification lifestyle. Why struggle with a problem when you can look it up on Wikipedia. Today’s students are digital natives, used to fast-paced, easy solutions. So although teachers need to find ways to help students become fluent with technology, using applications to their fullest capacities, we also must find ways to help students become more critical and creative thinkers. We cannot afford to let technology take away from teaching our students to think critically. As philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote, “Many people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so."

Technology is obsolete the minute it enters the marketplace. Therefore, we must be concerned with teaching students the skills they need to adapt to a constantly changing world. If we focus on teaching students to be better problem-solvers, to be better creative and critical thinkers, we will equip them for the modern marketplace, whatever that might look like. Students need to feel comfortable experimenting with technology and ideas alike. So although the face of education may have changed as a result of technology, the heart of teaching has not. Just like teachers centuries before us, our goal is to teach students to be independent, self-motivated, critical thinkers. It doesn’t matter if we use a typewriter or a Blackberry, the key is teaching students to think beyond the surface.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Technological Divide

When I returned from the annual National Council for Teachers of English conference last month, I was energized by the myriad of ideas for integrating technology into my classroom. I am fortunate enough to work in a district that encourages its teachers and students to explore meaningful ways of utilizing technology in the classroom. I am fortunate in so many ways. Recently, along with 18 other teachers in my building, I was awarded a technology based grant which will put 30 laptops, a SmartBoard, web camera, digital camera, and all sorts of software in the hands of my students. I’m excited by this opportunity, but also deeply troubled.

I teach a non-Western literatures course. My students spend a semester reading, writing, analyzing, and reflecting on the literature of people and cultures all across Africa, the Middle East, South East Asia, East Asia, and Latin America. The focus of our studies is not to make world outside the walls of our small community more exotic, but to share the lives of human beings – we all fear death, we desire connection to others, we all need to be understood. Regardless of the culture, traditions, and beliefs that we are born into, we all share a common humanity. As individuals we are more alike than we are different.

I have the luxury of exploring this theme with my students. It is easy for us as we sit in our heated classroom (or air-conditioned, depending upon the time of year), with VCR/DVD players and LCD projectors and laptops and books. But at times, many times, it feels dishonest. It is easy for me and my students to spend time contemplating what we share with others when we have a roof over our heads, food in our bellies, and the luxury of attending school each day. My students don’t worry in the same way that a child from a developing nation does about where the next meal will come from or whether war will take away our home and family.

My students spend part of our semester researching an issue currently facing a non-Western culture, and as a requirement of the project, they must find a way to share that research with an audience outside our classroom; they must find a way to make a difference. But it is only because of such privilege that we are able to study what we do. And now I’m rewarded with more technology, widening the gap between the cultures we study and how we do it. It doesn’t seem honest to have my students explore what connects them to students in Liberia when the technology we are using to undertake that study is one of the very things that divides us. The divide between those with access and those without is widening. Is technology loosening our grip on our humanity?

So when a colleague started telling me about the Give One, Get One laptop program, you can understand why I was a bit skeptical. How will giving students in developing nations a laptop change oppressive governmental regimes, unequal distribution of wealth, or lack of clean drinking water? And that’s when it hit me: laptop = literacy. I don’t mean literacy in terms of teaching a child to speak, write, or read English, Swahili, or French. Instead, the power in giving a child a laptop is that it helps that student become technologically literate. Yes, it will also increase her traditional literacies, but even more, a laptop connects that child to the world outside her immediate community.

Paulo Friere and Stanley Fish both wrote about this very idea: When you know the word for something, you own that thing. You have power over it. You can describe it, you can manipulate it, you can use it with conviction. Literacy equals power. The same principle applies to technology. A child with the knowledge of how to navigate the Internet has power. He or she is able to enter into the realm of the privileged class. Education is not just the playground of the elite when everyone has the opportunity to enter into the discussion.

And, so I encourage you to check out the One Laptop Per Child Project like I did. What a wonderful gift for the child in your life - each time your child connects to the Internet, you’ll know you’ve also helped to empower another child not so different from your own.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Addictive Vocabulary

This is so addictive: Free Rice. I don't know if I should thank or curse the blogger at Epic Adventures are Often Uncomfortable for sharing this one.

Students check it out! Not only will you be testing your vocabulary knowledge, but you'll be helping the hungry as well.

Integrating Technology

Many of the sessions at this past week’s annual National Council for Teachers of English conference dealt with the integration of technology into the classroom. It was wonderful to hear how educators grappled with the question of when and how to use technology to promote critical engagement with their content. English teachers around the nation are finding creative ways to use technology to not only educate their students on new applications, but more importantly, to teach students problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

I learned about a number of new resources at a wonderful presentation on summer reading. Check out these great free resources:

For Wiki pages:
  • is a free and easy site to use. It utilizes the basic format of Wikipedia and is very easy to navigate.

  • is more robust than pbwiki. Also free, you have more control over design elements using Wikispaces.

  • For social bookmarking pages:
  • is a free social bookmarking page. What the heck is a social bookmark? The idea is that instead of saving all your bookmarked websites to one local computer, you save them to the web page. Doing so allows you (or any one that you give your web address to) access to your bookmarks from any computer that has web access. This is great tool as it allows educators to create a list of bookmarks for a particular assignment and have our students access the linked web pages in one location.

  • takes the idea of social bookmarking one step further. This free site not only lets you save all your bookmarks to the web, it also allow you to leave "sticky notes" (a pop up page on the website you've bookmarked where you leave notes to yourself) that you or your students can access. It allows you to leave directions or notes for your students on the web pages that you want them to access.

  • For instant messaging:
  • is an online interface that allows users to connect all IM applications. So whether a user is on Yahoo! IM or AIM, Meebo connects all instant message applications. I even learned about a school that was using IM for a summer reading assignment!

  • For video assignments:
  • The Flip digital video camera is new on the market. It is a video camera that can film up to 60 minutes of footage. But instead of fumbling with a million cords and software disks to upload movies to your computer, the Flip camera is equipped with a USB plug and the software already loaded to the camera. You can upload your video to any computer without having to install any extra applications, making video projects super easy.

  • For even more information, check out the presenters’ Wikipages at

    Thursday, November 15, 2007

    Instruction vs. Instructions

    That’s it. I’m moving to Canada - British Columbia to be exact. Listening to an engaging presentation by a group of teachers from Richmond, British Columbia, at today’s NCTE pre-conference sessions in New York, I’ve become convinced that British Columbia’s got the answer. Not only do teachers there have clear and specific standards guiding their curriculum, but they also have a province-wide testing program that is rooted in formative assessment. Teachers in British Columbia are encouraged to utilize assessment as a way to guide what and how they teach, instead of assessment being used against them based on how well their students perform (or don’t). Assessment is seen as a tool rather than a result. In fact, the presenters I heard today described a progressive grade reporting system in which their first quarter grades are descriptive (literal descriptions of student progress rather than letter grades) in order to give teachers an opportunity to get to know their students’ strengths and struggles and give students an opportunity to practice skills before receiving a mark. It is a system where students are given an opportunity to master concepts and skills and not simply manage them and move on. Students are encouraged to reflect on their learning, set goals, and practice concepts before they ever receive an official mark. What an idea! We measure what students learn instead of penalize them for what they haven’t.

    In actuality, today’s session reinforced a great deal of what I’m already trying in my own classroom – giving students an opportunity to receive peer and teacher feedback on their writing before turning it in for a grade, encouraging students to identify their strengths and struggles in order to set goals, and providing opportunities to retake assessments as a way to show mastery. Teaching in this way, we as teachers give up ownership of the classroom and turn it back over to the students. Such a change in focus encourages student reflection on learning, thereby engaging the individual student in his or her educational process.

    As a way to highlight this, the presenters displayed a wonderful quote from Kylene Beers’ book Why Kids Can’t Read which posed the question of whether we as teachers are spending our time on instruction or instructions. Do we spend our time as coaches and mentors, modeling instruction, or do we instead spend our time giving detailed instructions, hoping that the more we give, the more they’ll get it?

    For all that the presentation helped to reinforce, it also has me questioning the usefulness of some of what I do. I value formative assessment, using assessment as a tool for learning rather than simply an assessment of leaning; however, I’m guilty of giving instructions rather than being a tool for instruction. My students and I joke that I explain too much. I think of the overhead I left for my substitute today, loaded down with instructions. So while I firmly believe that formative assessment and teaching for mastery are crucial to student development and learning, I apparently still have a long way to go. So, since I have more to learn, maybe I should stick around before packing my bags and moving north. I guess Canada will have to wait.

    Friday, November 9, 2007

    For All They Know

    It still surprises me that very few of my students know how to use the “Track Changes” function in Word, or, for that matter, how to correctly add MLA headers to their essays using the “Header and Footer” option. Each semester, I am asked repeatedly to show students how to change the margins in Word, how to set tabs, and how to create tables. Apparently I am not alone. In his recent post on Sicheii Yazhi, Eric reflects on a similar phenomenon in his classroom:
    “If that’s the case for an “ancient” tool like the word processor, imagine the implications for wikis, blogs, and social networks. And that’s just the basic skills. Wanna lay odds on how much thought they’ve put into the effective and ethical use of those tools? How about moving beyond the tool and returning to critical analysis of the content, the interplay between content and form, or the connections to any content created more than five years ago?”

    With technology evolving so quickly, teachers often feel lost in a sea of acronyms and digital coding while our students surf on ahead of us. However, like Eric, I’ve found that most students know how to surf the web but not how to navigate it. Students know how to find basic answers quickly, but do not spend much time learning the specifics of using any one application to its fullest potential. They hit a wall, encounter a challenge, and instead of spending time dwelling with that problem, they turn to Google in hopes that someone else will give them the answer. We live in an age where, on the surface, problems can be dealt with quickly by plugging simple questions into

    I find this analogous to how students enter my classroom – they know how to read the words on the page, but do not spend much time critically analyzing the perspective presented or reflecting on the message behind the medium. As educators it is our job to help students decode the world around them, whether we are teaching our students about technology or how to understand a poem. We must teach students to slow down, to reflect and dwell on challenges. We must teach students problem solving skills because Google will not have the answers for the real problems they will face in life. As such, we can use the same teaching tools we have for years. Our goal as educators is not to learn every new technological trick. We don’t have to be experts in every new application available. Instead, we teach students how to become critical consumers of technology in the same ways that we teach them to be critical consumers of literature.

    Whew! What a relief because I just figured out last week what the heck the tag at the bottom of everyone’s blog was all about!

    Thursday, November 8, 2007

    I'm still at school and it is 5:30 p.m.

    A mentor once told me that teachers should never actually figure out what their time is worth – never divide your salary by the actual number of hours that you spend being a teacher. Looking back, I think this is rather misguided advice to give to a new teacher. The advice is foolish not because I think teachers should calculate their worth, but because no one goes into education to make money. Teachers do what they do because they love working with students – being a part of that moment when a student makes a connection to what you are teaching, when you’ve just witnessed a young person make a discovery that will potentially change the way she understands herself and the world she lives in. I love my job. How many people get to say they enjoy what they do each day. I wake up thankful (darn early, but thankful) that every day I can expect to be surprised.

    That said, this has definitely been one of my more difficult weeks. It is Thursday and I’ve been at school every day this week until a little after five, picking up after student presentations and preparing for the presentations that will happen the next day. When I arrive home, the book bag is hurled onto the couch, its contents spilling everywhere because the zipper can’t contain the student essays, projects, pen pal letters. I nestle into the worn cushions, piles of homework and quizzes form an arch around me and extend to the coffee table and floor. There I sit and grade until about 10.

    It was at about four o’clock this afternoon when I realized I had not stopped to eat either breakfast or lunch. I love that students are always in my classroom – before school, during lunch, and after school. It makes me feel like I’ve accomplished one of my goals of setting up a safe and inviting space for students to be. But I am occasionally (often) guilty of neglecting myself in order to take care of others. In fact, I think most teachers are guilty of this. In a conversation with a colleague the other day, we joked that both of our significant others find it exasperating how much of our time is taken up thinking about, planning for, preparing to, and evaluating our teaching. My husband will often arch a disapproving eyebrow in my direction when I tell him I’ve volunteered to sponsor another after school club or have spent part of my paycheck on more books for my classroom. But other teachers understand this. Teachers give of themselves, and not just part of who we are. Good teachers give themselves wholly to the art of teaching. Teaching is a labor of love.

    However, this is not to say that I think it admirable or wise to neglect oneself. In fact, I find when I do this, I am actually a worse teacher. When I take on extra duties or volunteer for another committee, I don’t have enough of myself left to give to teaching. On his blog So You Want to Teach, Joel confronts this same issue and has some great advice for avoiding the burnout that many teachers experience – “All Work and No Play...”. Read any teacher’s blog, listen in on any conversation between teachers, and you will hear about the struggles of juggling teaching and a life outside of teaching. I am worse at finding that balance now than when I first entered the classroom six years ago.

    But what makes it all worth it is that moment when you know a young person got it – that “ah ha!” moment. So I will grade until 10 tonight, I will get up early, I will not calculate my time because I live for those moments.

    Friday, October 26, 2007

    Is “Eye for an Eye” Justice?

    My students are currently finishing up Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One, the story of an English boy growing up in apartheid South Africa. Told almost as a contemporary myth, the novel deals not only with the tensions between whites and blacks, but also between the English and the Afrikaans. It is the story of finding one’s inner strength to stand up for what is right (well, at least until you get to the end). We’ve had lengthy class discussions about the effects of racism, where prejudice comes from and how it takes hold, we’ve talked about apathy and inner strength. But a few days ago, we got stuck on the question of justice.

    We’ve been picking apart themes of the novel – how can camouflage be a necessity and a hindrance in the development of one’s identity? What does it mean to have power? What is the difference between power over one’s self and power over a group? How do people maintain power? The class has come up with a number of important truths stemming from our discussions: evil exists when good men do nothing; real strength comes in being able to analyze, understand, and empathize with another person before taking action; to beat the system, you must first understand it; and, because man fears a loss of power, he will attempt to maintain it by fear and force. Unfortunately, when we came to the portion of the story where one of the characters is brutally killed standing up for what he believes and later his attacker is murdered in much the same way, my students were divided.

    Some cheered this turn of events in the novel. In the end, the attacker, Lt. Borman, got what he deserved. This is karmic retribution, some students declared. At which point I asked, “is ‘eye for an eye’ really justice?” I was surprised by how many students argued that, indeed, it was. I tried to reason with them – “If Mary calls me a jerk, and I call Mary a jerk right back, aren’t I stooping to her level? That’s not justice.” They wouldn’t be moved. “You’ve got to stand up for yourself, Ms. Ward. Isn’t that what this novel is about?”

    Since when did revenge become justice? The students argued that if the attacker lived, it would not have been just. However, I argued that his death came in the form of revenge for another wrong, which contradicts many of the truths we discussed earlier. Still, many of the students were not convinced, which will be problematic when they get to the end of the story where it is not another character that is exacting the revenge but the protagonist. Although, the story completes the hero’s cycle by returning to the beginning, the ending complicates, if not contradicts, many of the themes of the novel. The ending seems to validate my students’ argument that an eye for an eye is justice.

    Do we really live in a society where “eye for an eye” is justice? Have I run into a development wall with the students or have the values of our society shifted?

    About the graphic: Dries Buytaert is a graduate student who takes beautiful photographs. You'll find more of his work by clicking on the graphic above or by visiting

    Tuesday, October 23, 2007

    Writing in all its forms

    A fellow teacher asked me the other day, “How many essays have you done so far?” Already over six weeks into the school year, I replied, “One.”

    It has taken me quite a long time to learn that English classes, especially honors English classes, are not essay driven courses. Instead, I wish that same teacher had asked, “What have your students written so far this semester?” I would have replied that my students have crafted letters to pen pals in foreign lands, written research project proposals, analyzed themes in many reflection journal entries, revised a personal narrative essay, and prepared a script for a video-taped speech. But most importantly, my students write every day in class, whether it is reflecting on a prompt related to what we are discussing or writing a brief reflection on a self-selected reading novel. Students must learn how to write in a variety of formats and in a variety of contexts. Although learning to write well-supported thesis-driven essays is important, it is a great disservice to focus on the expository essay to the exclusion of other forms of writing.

    I should apologize to the students that I first taught years ago. Following every text we read in class, whether it was a book, poem, or short story, I fettered (my current students will appreciate the use of a vocabulary word here) students with predictable essay assignment after predictable essay assignment. What was the theme of this poem? Where and how does the author use symbolism in this work? What is the climax of this story, and how does this decision prove whether the protagonist is dynamic or static? My students dreaded finishing a text because they knew it meant all of them would be writing the same boring essay, which they would get back, look at the letter grade, and toss out.

    I was trapped in thinking that I should teach writing like I was taught writing – through essay after essay. What I’ve learned over the years is that good writing is good writing, regardless of what form it comes in. Once I understood this, it freed me to use all sorts of writing assignments in my classroom and find better ways to engage my students in authentic writing experiences. Students talk about the best way to start a piece of writing when we analyze and write our own poetry. These same techniques can be carried over and used in academic writing. Students learn about writing effective thesis statements by first formalizing research questions into a research proposal. They practice grammar and punctuation skills when they write letters to their pen pals who are just learning the rules of the English language. I can teach students how to effectively organize an essay once we’ve written a few reflective journals based on what we’ve been reading and discussing in class. All good writing, whether it is a poem or a blog entry, starts strong, focuses on a thesis, supports that thesis with specific examples, is well organized, utilizes effective transitions, and ends strong. So my students don’t simply learn how to write expository essays, they learn how to write.

    Monday, October 15, 2007

    October 15: Blog Action for the Environment Day

    Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day
    Bloggers across the net are raising awareness today for a variety of environmental issues – from global climate change to conservation, from recycling to responsible agricultural practices. Today is Blog Action for the Environment Day, and nearly 16, 000 bloggers and 12 million readers are participating in this international day of action.

    I’ve spent some time this afternoon perusing a number of blogs, checking out what other writers have chosen to reflect on today. A number of blogs focus on the significance of Al Gore’s recent Noble Prize and the need to take action to end climate change. I’ve stumbled across a number of interesting entries about how we need to stop thinking of environmental issues as fodder for partisan political debates and instead think of them as life issues. I’ve been ruminating on what I might share that would add to this larger conversation on the environment.

    I didn’t grow up eating organic foods on a commune. My family didn’t compost, unless you can count chucking apple cores out the window on long car rides. I am not an environmental activist by birth. But as a result of how I grew up, I would consider myself someone who is concerned about environmental issues.

    Some of my favorite childhood memories are playing in the cherry and apple orchards that surrounded my cousin’s home. With our legs dangling off the tailgate of my uncle’s truck, my sister, mom, cousin, aunt, and I would bounce into the orchard each summer to pick buckets of cherries. And each year, even though I knew better, I would gorge myself on sweet cherries. My sister, cousin, and I would line up among the trees for the annual contest to see who could spit her pits the farthest. Leah always won. She could curl her tongue around the pit and send in flying at least two rows. We’d race through trees, ducking under gnarled branches, playing tag in the orchard while our parents picked fruit for pies, breads, jams, and more. I took for granted the orchards of my childhood. I just assumed everyone grew up eating as much fruit as they wanted, playing hide ‘n’ seek among evenly spaced rows of trees and delicate white blossoms. As a kid, I didn’t know anything about the possibility of pesticides seeping into the well water of homes that surrounded farmland.

    My family moved away from cherry country when I was 11. We moved into muck. Western Michigan is home to many muck farms where cabbage, lettuce, greens, and parsley are grown. My first real summer job at 13 years old was working from 6:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m., six days a week, cutting lettuce from football-stadium length fields we had earlier in the season spent weeding on our hands and knees. I hated that job, but went back the following summer.

    My parents still live in the same area. Their home, once surround by corn on three sides and squash fields on the other, is quickly being developed into subdivisions. Bulldozers have ripped through the fields I grew up in. They’ve made way for cookie-cutter homes and man-made lakes.

    Although the current political debate around global climate change is important, I think many people find it difficult to connect to the doomsday warnings. Instead, I think we encounter environmental issues on a much smaller, much more personal scale. It is those personal moments that have meaning. I buy organic produce because growing up and working on farms as a kid, I’ve been doused by the pesticide sprayer more times than I can count. As a college student, I protested buying grapes from California where migrant workers became sick and in some cases died when the drinking water in their homes was contaminated with pesticides. I recycle everything I can because the dump near my childhood home has grown to mountainous proportions. I buy organic milk and free range meats when possible because I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and have seen inside industrial chicken coops. I support organizations like The Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club because my parents took my sister and me camping every summer, and although I hated the mosquitoes, I loved every other minute spent in the woods.

    So if nothing else, I hope that today someone reads this and is able to make a personal connection. Instead of throwing away that piece of junk mail you received today, recycle it. Instead of leaving the water on when you brush your teeth tonight, shut it off. Close the refrigerator door instead of letting it hang open. Don’t print out that last blank page and toss it in the trash. Take a walk this evening and listen for the crickets. Remember what it is like to connect to the world you live in.

    Saturday, October 6, 2007

    Thoughts on Homework

    I’m rethinking homework this semester. Alfie Kohn keeps popping up, whispering in my ear in that daily homework may not be the most effective way to help students learn.

    I was sitting in a faculty meeting this week, half-watching, half-listening to the PowerPoint presentation on various school housekeeping items: dress code enforcement, improving state test scores, grant information, when up pops “Homework Committee.” Our district is establishing a committee to assess whether or not there should be a district-wide policy on homework. Our principal diplomatically attempted to moderate comments about whether or not homework is necessary. So now Alfie Kohn and his latest book The Homework Myth pops up in faculty meetings.

    I have an entire collection of Kohn’s essays and books on grading littering my bookcases. As an honors English teacher, I am particularly intrigued by his work on grades and how they function in the classroom. Do letter grades actually help students understand and reflect on their learning process? Kohn argues that letter grades are merely a form of external motivation - bribes - which work for the short run, but ultimately do not help to motivate a student’s individual desire and drive to learn. Similarly, Kohn’s latest work on homework contends that most homework does not really help to reinforce or practice the skills of a particular teacher’s lesson. Instead, most homework is another form of competition for grades. Homework is used as a grade collection tool instead of truly assessing whether or not a student has mastered a particular skill. Students struggle through new material at home, potentially mislearning it, in order to earn a good grade. Kohn argues that such homework only motivates students for the short term, teaching them that education is about jumping through the appropriate hoops. Homework, Kohn argues, deters real learning.

    So what is an English teacher to do? I agree with most of Kohn’s contentions. The day I return essays or quizzes, students want to sit and compare percentages and letter grades. They do not spend much time reviewing and correcting items they missed. In honors English, it’s all about the grade. As a result, I’ve started to change some of my grading practices: not giving grades on initial drafts, preferring to use comment-only grading; giving students multiple opportunities to re-take quizzes to show that they can master the concepts; and having students complete self-reflection and goal writing activities for each writing assignment. I’ve also been rethinking homework. I generally do not give daily homework in the form of worksheets. However, my students usually have reading assignments. If not, they are working on revising the draft of an essay. I’m curious what other English teachers do. What are your thoughts on homework? What are your homework practices?

    Tuesday, October 2, 2007

    Crying in Class

    Every day is different. It’s what I love about teaching. Even though I’ve taught the same tenth grade World Literatures course for the last four years, it’s different each semester. It’s different each class period. It keeps me on my toes, always thinking about the content, the curriculum, anticipating student questions and concerns.

    It was a conversation that started last year in one of my classes that prompted me to make some changes in my curriculum. When a student emphatically declared in class that one person can never really make a difference, one person cannot change the world, I knew I had to rethink my curriculum. How could someone so young feel so disempowered? So this fall instead of immediately jumping into didactic grammar lessons, I decided to begin on the very first day with an essay. I began a few short weeks ago by having students brainstorm and later draft essays on the theme of belief, taking inspiration from the weekly National Public Radio’s broadcasts of “This I Believe,” a program where listeners write and share short, personal narratives about a core belief. I knew adding in another essay would mean rethinking how I structured my course, but what I never anticipated was how much my students’ writing would change me.

    I didn’t anticipate tearing up in class as my students began to brainstorm ideas together on the board. I believe in taking inspiration from those around you. I believe in the power of a pet. I believe that what you put into the world comes back to you. I believe loss teaches you to live. I never anticipated choking up at Back to School Night as I explained to parents their students’ progress on the essays. Having read initial drafts, watched students peer revise, and commented on good drafts of essays, I saw how students took a vague prompt – what do you believe? – and crafted responses that were meaningful, but I did not anticipate wiping away tears as students presented their essays to the class last week. I believe in the power of kindness. I believe in learning to love myself. I believe in everyday heroes. I was awe-struck by how much students were willing to share of themselves so early in the class. I have been carrying their essays around with me for the last week, their words echoing in my head.

    I am impressed by the student who could stand up and so eloquently share her fears about being the only black face in a sea of white peers. What will they think? I am touched by the student who shared how she takes inspiration from her mother who chose not to let a medical condition tell her what she couldn’t do. I am humbled by the essay from a student who rediscovered the gift of happiness while sharing a meal with her mother in the food court at the mall.

    During the first few days of class, I asked a group of 15 and 16 year olds to let down their guard and share their inner-most beliefs with their peers and with their teacher. I never anticipated that they would earnestly take up this request. I should have. I am ashamed of myself for expecting less. And I am saddened that I do not think most adults could have completed this same assignment with the heart, integrity, and honesty that my students did. I believe age does not equal wisdom, and for that reason, I believe students must be heard. When they are, they change the world, one person at a time. As their teacher, I am proof.

    Sunday, September 23, 2007

    The Power of a Book

    A book can hold our heart within its pages; words weaved in such beautiful and sincere patterns that we carry them with us long after we’ve closed the back cover. Books shape us. They have power.

    After reading Bridget Fernandes’ most recent blog entry at Books for Tanzania, I spent some time reminiscing about the first books that I remember reading, not those that were read to me, but the ones I first learned to read on my own. My husband recalls that at an early age his favorite color was purple because the first book he remembers reading was The Adventures of Harold and the Purple Crayon. Personally, I was obsessed with feet after learning to read Dr. Seuss’ Foot Book to my younger sister. I grew up in a reading household. Sunday afternoons were spent lying on my belly with the Record Eagle sprawled across the living room floor, trying to read words that I had no understanding of because I wanted to read the newspaper like my father. I would beg my mother to take my sister and me to the library because I had devoured the five books that I had just checked out three days earlier. While my classmates got money for good report cards, I knew I had the better deal because my good grades got me a new book from the Scholastic book order forms that were sent home with us every other month in elementary school. I loved the days that we got those order forms. I would wait until I got home to slowly pour over the pages, circling the books that I would either ask to order or later check out from the library. I was a book eater. When my mom showed me her collection of old Nancy Drew books, their bindings gathering dust on the shelves in my grandparents' home, I started reading them to be like her. I read every Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on. When the new series started, I couldn’t wait for the day that our local library got the latest copy. I was usually the first one to check it out. I was a bibliophile. One of my favorite memories is of the day that I received my first bookcase because it meant that I had books to fill it. I still have that bookcase.

    Today, my home is filled with books. I have more books than my bookcases can hold. New and used, hard copies and paperbacks spill from nearly every shelf in nearly every room in my home. In fact, after moving just a few short weeks ago, my friends cursed this very fact, having helped move heavy box after box of books up and down flights of stairs. Most of books were picked up at various used bookstores but have yet to be read. I have a personal library of untouched novels, memoirs, and poetry books. But like Ms. Fernandes mentions in her blog entry, I take this luxury for granted. Where I used to devour three or more books a week throughout my school days, today I find I read less than 10 novels a year. Instead, I let myself be distracted by the routines of daily living. I forget how fortunate I am to have grown up with books.

    Because I learned to read early, because reading my valued in my household, I grew up valuing education. I never questioned if I would go to college, only where. Although this is also true for many of the students I currently have in class, we are the exceptions. Over 9 million people in the world cannot read. If you own a book, you are richer than over three-quarters of the world’s population. We are the fortune few. Therefore, we bear a responsibility to help those who do not have access to books. When a person learns to read, he or she gains access to the shared stories of this world. Books grant access to the history of cultures and the stories of people. There is power in reading. A book is perhaps the most powerful and meaningful gift that can be shared. And unfortunately, our society seems to take this gift for granted.

    So, this fall my students will have an opportunity to give back. There’s a book drop off box in my classroom for any students, parents, staff, and community members that would like to help Ms. Fernandes in her efforts to send books to Tanzania. One small book, the one that has been sitting on your shelf for the past three years untouched, could open up the world for a young person.

    Tuesday, September 4, 2007

    This I Believe

    I scrapped the generic getting-to-know-you games this year. I’ll talk about the syllabus and classroom rules in a few days. Instead, I started my first day of classes prepping students for their first essay. Yes, I’m that English teacher that assigns students homework on the first day.

    It dawned on me not long ago that so much of what I teach in the World Literatures curriculum revolves around belief – what do others believe and why, what do I believe and why, what do my students believe and why. It is our beliefs that often separate us. Pick up any newspaper or scroll through the headlines on the BBC News site and you will find it riddled with international strife, civil wars, and conflict. Whether it is over land rights, religious convictions, or attitudes about women, children, marriage, what have you – our world seems to be unraveling over differences between various belief systems. Unfortunately, if this is all students learn from a World Literatures class, they walk out of the classroom as global observers not participants, their us versus them attitude intact. Isn’t it interesting what people in India believe, but what does that have to do with me? So this year, I wanted to find a way to start out my classes by presenting students with an idea we come back to throughout the course - although our beliefs may be different, we are all connected regardless of culture by the same basic desires, fears, and needs. It’s all a matter of perspective. I wanted students to begin to question what it is that makes us human. Yes, a tall order for the first day of class. Luckily, National Public Radio came to my rescue.

    I look forward to the Monday broadcasts of All Things Considered because that’s when I hear the weekly essay segment “This I Believe,” a portion of the program where listeners both famous and not are invited to share their essays on a core belief. I find myself in tears most Monday afternoons, either because the essays are so clearly from the heart or because the essayist has me laughing a bit too hard for my Monday afternoon drive home. I’ve been listening to the essays since they began broadcasting them a few years ago, so I’m not really sure why it took me so long to make the connection. To help students explore the beliefs of others, they must first explore their own beliefs! And that’s where I started today.

    As the students came in, I had a line of yellow tape dividing the room in half, a seeming separation mark. I handed out a questionnaire asking students to consider a whether they agreed or disagreed with 15 statements. People can change. Life is fair. It is always better to tell the truth. And then I clicked on my overhead projector to show a copy of Martha Collins’ poem “Lines,” at first only showing the title and asked the students –what do lines do? They separate. They divide. They box us in and segregate us. And then I read them the poem…
    "Lines" By Martha Collins
    Draw a line. Write a line. There.
    Stay in line, hold the line, a glance
    between the lines is fine but don't
    turn corners, cross, cut in, go over
    or out, between two points of no
    return's a line of flight, between
    two points of view's a line of vision.
    But a line of thought is rarely
    straight, an open line's no party
    line, however fine your point.
    A line of fire communicates, but drop
    your weapons and drop your line,
    consider the shortest distance from x
    to y, let x be me, let y be you.

    What else do lines do? They connect us. Although our beliefs may be different, they come from a similar place. Beliefs are like lines. If we take just our first impression of the line, it divides us. But when we take the time to examine the line, our beliefs and the beliefs of those around us, we will see that they also connect us.

    Each student took a place on that taped line on my classroom floor. If they disagreed with the statement, they took a step back. If they agreed, they took a step forward. We spent the first day of class talking about our beliefs. Tomorrow, they will begin writing their own essays for the “This I Believe” program.

    Tuesday, August 28, 2007

    Just Like Students

    The first morning back following summer break, the floors still slippery with wax, the smell of cleaning agent clinging to everything, is the morning that we jokingly dread. As soon as it turns August first, we commiserate with our teacher friends that it’s almost time to go back, that we’re not ready, and the summer went too fast. But we’ve all been anticipating this day, the day when the teachers first come back. We’re like our students on this day. We file into the auditorium slowly, more interested in catching up with the colleagues and friends that we haven’t seen during the summer months than with the comments of the morning’s speaker. High school teachers in particular are just like those students that linger, the last to go into the assembly, jockeying for a seat near the rear of the room so they can whisper to friends.

    This morning was no different. I stood outside the doors to the high school auditorium with teachers from all the district’s schools gathered to hear the superintendent kick off our year and introduce the morning’s guest speaker, Tony Rotondo, author of Scratch Where it Itches: Confessions of a Public School Teacher. I must admit, I was a little skeptical. Oh no, another speaker. I hope he doesn’t have a PowerPoint presentation about the district’s goals and expectations, our annual yearly progress, and aligning the curriculum with state standards. He didn’t. Instead, Tony infused his message with humor all teachers could relate to – the absurdity of educational acronoyms, shushing strangers in movie theaters, and the everyday irony spilled from the mouths of students. Ultimately, his message of reaching out to the staff and students in our lives was a wonderful start to the new school year. So, you can imagine how surprised I was when he started to read from my entry titled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” to the entire teaching staff in my district.

    At the point in his speech where Tony was talking about Alfie Kohn’s work, I was nodding along. I have read a great deal on Kohn’s work – from the power and pitfalls of the letter grade to the myth of homework. So imagine my surprise when shortly after talking about Kohn, the morning’s speaker segues into discussing creativity and standards in the classroom and from his mouth booms my name through the microphone. Suddenly, I was a student again. Hey, that’s me he’s taking about! I was being singled out for something I wrote. My words have power. That feeling soon turned to panic as I realized – hey, that’s me he’s talking about. I felt my spine curve as I attempted to sink into the green fabric of the auditorium seat when he started to read part of my blog for the staff of the entire district. Called to the front of the auditorium, I don’t think my eyes left the carpet. Don’t trip. I was a student again. The speaker presented me with a gift (thanks for the portfolio, Mr. Rotondo!) and whispered, “Good luck with Etcetera.” And just like my students, I didn’t really hear what he had to say immediately following the recognition. I was that awkward student all over again, giddy from the recognition and anxious all at once.

    The moment reinforced something for me. I need to make sure that my students have this experience, that their words, written or spoken, are recognized and honored for their power. I write today in part because a high school teacher took notice of something I had written and entered me in a local poetry competition (thanks Mr. Dik!). Would I have continued writing essays, poetry, taking creative writing classes had that teacher not recognized my interest in writing? Probably. But without that one teacher’s recognition, I might not have found my confidence or courage to take risks in my writing until much later. Moments like these have meaning and power for students - for everyone. When we are recognized for what we think, what we say, what we write or create, our world changes. We realize a new world of possibilities and understand that what we have created has power. Every student should have that moment. Every student should feel that world of possibility.

    Tuesday, August 14, 2007

    Do Schools Kill Creativity?

    Sir Ken Robinson argues that we are currently a part of an educational system that perpetuates the stigmatization of mistakes. With the prominence that high stakes tests have in our classrooms, students are less willing to take risks, to go out on a limb and make a mistake. But as Robinson states, “If you are not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

    It’s only twenty minutes long. Give it a watch: Sir Ken Robinson talks on “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”

    Are we are educating people out of their creativity?

    I have a contradictory classroom. The first thing I hand students when they walk into my class is a syllabus that touts the need for creative and critical thinking. We talk about the need to think “outside the box,” to question what they see, what they hear, what they read; students must question how they are educated. One of the lessons I return to throughout the year is the ability to recognize shades of grey, to get out of the dichotomous black vs. white line of thinking. Especially when studying the cultures and literatures of the world, there are no easy answers when it comes to cultural beliefs, values, and ethics.

    And then I have to teach them how to take a bubble test, to eliminate the wrong answer and find the right one. It is an important skill for passing the standardized state proficiency tests and achieving a high score on the SATs, which will in turn get them into a better university and potential scholarships. The way our current system is set up, students who know how take objective tests are the ones who succeed.

    It is a strange contradiction. Each year I attend multiple meetings, trainings, and conferences on rethinking education to include the whole child. Current educational philosophy is predicated on Gardner’s research on multiple intelligences, that people have a variety of ways of expressing their intelligence whether it is artistically, kinesthetically, musically, logically, etc. Each year we learn about ways to incorporate and highlight these different styles of intelligence in the classroom. Teachers are using differentiated instruction techniques to help children of varying talents and intelligences demonstrate their skills. Educational specialists throw around words like formative assessment, authentic assessment, alternative assessment – all of which are at odds with the objective forms of assessment (state tests and college entrance exams) that students (and teachers) are judged on. As teachers, our educational philosophies are at odds with our nation’s educational mandates.

    And our students are caught in between.

    As Robinson states, “We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we are educating our children.” At the very least, our schools are inconsistent – current educational philosophy and practice is at odds with the directives of the No Child Left Behind bill. Is Robinson right, do our schools kill creativity?

    Thanks to Eric at Sicheii Yazhi for pointing me to the piece by Sir Ken Robinson.

    Wednesday, August 8, 2007

    The Art of Revision

    Revision is perhaps the most difficult part of writing. Not long ago, I head author James McBride talk about crafting his memoir The Color of Water, and he said it rather eloquently: "Writing is rewriting." It is not necessarily getting the ideas first onto the blank white page, although there are days that I struggle with that as well, but the letting go of words, phrases, and images. Revising is a process of not simply refining one's ideas, but also letting some ideas go.

    The process of writing is different for everyone. With the blank page staring me down, daring me to write, I usually find it very easy to get my initial ideas onto the page. It is a sort of purging. But once that momentum slows to a molasses drip, I deliberate over every word, the placement of every piece of punctuation. I start the process of revision midway through my writing as a way to figure out what it is that I am trying to say. My poetry course a few weeks ago highlighted how painful the revision process can be.

    Each day we were given a prompt and about an hour and a half to craft a poem. There were mornings when the ideas came spilling out. On the first day when we were told to write a piece about family, my pen was to the paper before the teacher had finished explaining the prompt. As I scribbled my ideas on the blank page, I would periodically stop to scratch out unnecessary prepositions and articles, draw arrows to move lines to different stanzas. Each time I got to what I thought was the end of the poem, I would start over by recopying the poem onto a clean page, beginning the process all over again, scratching out and moving some more. I went through about eight revisions before I got the poem to a working first draft. Each line scratched out of the poem about a family member, my grandma, was hard to let go. Especially in poetry, where each word counts, revision can be a painful process of letting go.

    As my professor conferenced with me over my poetry, suggesting revision ideas and lines to get rid of, I was able to empathize with my students. For emerging writers, especially when they are writing about something personally significant, it can be difficult to revise and scratch out clunky sentences and phrases if those words have emotional weight for the student. Students are much more comfortable, as all writers are, with editing their work. Editing the misplaced commas and misspelled words is easy. If we think of writing like building a house, when we edit the mechanical and grammatical problems of a piece, we change the curtains to make sure they match the décor. When we revise, we change the foundation, a much more labor intensive project. Editing is not the real work of writing. As James McBride said, “Writing is rewriting.” So I must find better ways to engage my students in the work of writing.

    Tuesday, July 31, 2007

    Rethinking Poetry

    I love when lines of poetry subtly slide into a conversation. Poetry takes hold of us, lurks somewhere in the recesses of memory until the moment we need it again, whether for reference, humor, or comfort. Good verse follows us all the days of our lives. So why is it that when students enter my classroom each fall, they nearly froth when I introduce the first poem, ready to rip it to shreds. They strangle the vocabulary words with red circles, never really planning to look up the definitions. They slash through the metaphors and similes, and cage the first letters of words to jail the alliterations, and they do not feel the poem wailing against such injury. The poet Billy Collins expresses this same sentiment at the close of his poem “Introduction to Poetry.”
    But all they want to do
    is tie the poem to a chair with rope
    and torture a confession out of it.

    They begin beating it with a hose
    to find out what it really means.

    This is what English teachers do to poetry, myself included. We are wonderful teachers of device; we help our students understand the difference between metaphor and metonymy, introduce allusions and analogies, and dissect significant stanza breaks. But do we put the pieces back together? I’m guilty of letting students walk out with the bell, leaving a poem bound and gagged, slumped lifeless in the shadows of room 203.

    I am not arguing that the craft of poetry should not be taught. In fact reading some of Nancie Atwell’s pieces has me thinking about how I could utilize poetry more often and effectively in my classroom. Except this time, instead of solely focusing on the style and structure of a poem, I want to find more opportunities for students to react to poetry on the visceral level. As Atwell describes in the introduction to “A Poem A Day: A Guide to Naming the World,” poetry as a genre gives students a “vocabulary for naming emotions and relations” (8). It is from these shared emotional responses and connections to poetry that students begin to also understand and appreciate the craft of the genre. Their connections to verse help them “figure out what matters, explore it, try to make sense of it, endeavor to change it, and help themselves begin to live lives of worth” (2). It is imperative that I present poetry in such a way. It was the poet Wallace Stevens who stated that the very purpose of poetry was “to help people live their lives.” What could be more essential to my teaching? If nothing else, I want students to find one poem or just one line that they can carry around in the pocket of their memory for a lifetime.

    Monday, July 30, 2007

    Sometimes a pebble is just a pebble

    ”Don’t write about the pebbles. Write about a pebble.” Nancie Atwell, Lessons That Change Writers

    Out of breath, I stumbled into room 326 this morning just as the professor was giving his morning greeting. Today began my journey in the course Teacher as Poet through the Pennsylvania Literature and Writing Project, a week long intensive study of the craft of writing and teaching poetry. An eight and half hour a day, week long course that I’ve been looking forward to all summer. It’s part of the reason I teach. I love being in the classroom, always have. As a 10, 15, 20-year-old student, I eagerly anticipated new classes, new books, new assignments, the energy and the creativity that is sparked by a good teacher, great literature, and a willing class.

    With the formalities out of the way, we began this morning’s class with the above quote by Nancie Atwell, a quote that got me reflecting not only on how I teach writing, but about my own writing process as well. Like many emerging writers, I had a problem with generalities. I’d lift those large abstract clichés to unfound, existential, angst-driven glory. But thanks to some wonderful writing teachers, I’ve started to shift my attention to the particulars. In fact, now I find myself in quite the opposite predicament. I load my lonely pebble down with so many hefty adjectives, shackle it with so many prepositional phrases that it sinks to the bottom of my writing. That one lonely pebble, yoked with so many alliterative allusions, creative colors, protracted phrases, weighing it down. But I keep digging at the bottom, sifting through the silt, trying hard to unlodge the same old pebbles. Maybe it didn’t quite fit into one poem, so I’ll lug it into another, only to drown another poem.

    I need to let the pebble be just a pebble.

    So, below is the first draft of a poem that stemmed from this reflection, the need to let words, ideas breath on their own:

    The Phone Call

    Fumbling, faltering,
    her mouth miles from the receiver,
    it takes an anxious minute
    for my name, the connection,
    to get through the line.
    soft sigh
    of relieved recognition.

    We do not talk often,
    preferring to send letters
    scrawled across the open spaces
    fronts and backs of Hallmark greetings
    extending to one sheet of pale pink,
    then two.

    I call
    to say thank-you
    for the birthday wish,
    rhyme signed with Love,
    Aunt Lorraine and Uncle Harry.
    I cannot ask,
    do not touch
    the question of her memory,
    the one left holding the line.

    I'd love feedback if you have any thoughts. Feel free to post a comment.

    Thursday, July 26, 2007

    A Village of 100

    If you have a bed to sleep in, a refrigerator for food, a closet for clothing, if you have a roof over your head each night, you are wealthier that 75 percent of the world’s population. According to the Minature Earth Project, if the world’s population were reduced to 100 people, 6 individuals would control 59 percent of the world’s money. The “State of the Village Report,” originally published by Dartmouth professor Donella Meadows in 1990, was used to calculate the statistics which many of us have seen in the form of an email titled "Village of 100." If the world’s population were reduced to 100 people, what would our global village look like? Since 1990, Ms. Meadows’ research has been circulated through millions of email inboxes and shared in thousands of classrooms, mine included. The updated version published by the Miniature Earth Project includes recent population statistics from the UN and the Population Reference Bureau.

    The statistics are overwhelming. An estimated 4.3 people are born every second around the world. Around 2.5 billion people do not have access to improved sanitation. Almost 2 million people died from tuberculosis last year. More than 500,000 women die each year from complications of pregnancy or childbirth. But it is especially hard for students to grasp the significance of such large numbers. Can you picture 2.5 billion people? How about 2 million? What about just 500,000? Students cannot fathom the enormity and the implications of such statistics. I would argue that none of us can. It is when these statistics hit home, when we put a face to these numbers that they have power. We discuss a similar sort of phenomena in class when we talk about Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. It is shocking to hear about the Jews, political prisoners, mentally ill, handicapped, homosexuals – the millions and millions of people who died in concentration camps during WWII, but it is not until we can put a face to the horror that the numbers and the story become real.

    Similarly, when our world population of 6.6 billion is reduced to 100, we can begin to understand the statistics. Yes, it is an over simplification, but it is one that we need to make the statistics real. It would mean nothing to my students if I told them only 1.98 billion people in the world have a bank account; it sounds like a rather impressive number. However, when I tell them that in a village of 100, if you have a bank account, you are one of the 30 wealthiest people in the world, suddenly the statistic starts to make sense. Seventy people do not have the means or the money to open a bank account, something all of them have. Or, instead of telling students that 3.5 billion people struggle to live off less than $2 a day, I have half of my class stand and tell them to think of our class as a global microcosm and those standing would have to find a way to clothe, feed, shelter, educate, and entertain themselves with less than $2 a day, the statistic comes alive. The numbers have a face. They become real.

    So what do I do with these numbers? How do I help students understand their responsibility to our global community? Especially at the start of each semester, I am stared down by students who declare they have no responsibility to a larger community. “We all have to work for what we have, so everyone else should,” is a common first response. As the semester unfolds, students begin to understand that it is sheer luck that they were born when and where they were as most people in the world do not have it so fortunate. But even for those students who make that connection, fewer still understand the responsibility, connection, power they have to help those less fortunate. Is this a by-product of the American dream? Have we really all become so myopic that we believe the myth that it is possible for every human being to “pull themselves up by their boot straps”? One of the statistics that breaks my heart is this:

    Of the industrialized nations, the United States has one of the largest populations living in poverty, about 17 percent.

    It is pitiful that the wealthiest nation in the world does not even help its own people, let alone those outside her boarders. When did we stop caring for our fellow human beings?

    (Statistics taken from the Population Reference Bureau)

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007

    The Power of Poetry

    Next week I start my Teacher as Poet course through the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project (PAWLP), and it has sent me rifling through the dog-earred pages of my poetry books. I’ve been flipping through a book that I received last semester as a gift for participating in some committee or other. Teaching with Fire: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Teach is a beautifully organized collection of poems and essays submitted by educators from around the nation. The day I received this book I very clearly remember nearly missing my bus stop on the way home as I was absorbed in its pages, chuckling at some of the teacher essays, tears hovering at the corners of my lashes reading others.

    The first poem that I flipped to this afternoon was one submitted by Jim Burke. As he explains in the essay accompanying his submission of a Seamus Heaney poem, “Through words, through poetry, [the students] cure themselves for that one hour when their hopes and hearts rhyme, while I sit in the back, bearing witness to their voices, their lives, and all they have to say if we can only find the courage to listen.” I wish I had remembered flipping down the page on this poem. I wish I could now give it to my student who turned to me and sighed, “What does it matter? Teenagers don’t have power, anyway. We can’t change anything.” Poetry has power. I want to find ways to share that power with my students, to feed even the smallest spark of hope until it burns like a fire within them. Poetry has that power. So now I’m thinking about ways to add more poetry into my curriculum.

    From “The Cure at Troy” by Seamus Heaney
    Human beings suffer.
    They torture one another.
    They get hurt and get hard.
    No poem or play or song
    Can fully right a wrong
    Inflicted and endured.

    History says, Don’t hope
    On this side of the grave,
    But then, once in a lifetime
    The longed-for tidal wave
    Of justice can rise up
    And hope and history rhyme.

    So hope for a great sea-change
    On the far side of revenge.
    Believe that a farther shore
    Is reachable from here.
    Believe in miracles
    And cures and healing wells.

    Call miracle self-healing,
    The utter self-revealing
    Double-take of feeling.
    If there’s fire on the mountain
    Or lightning and storm
    And a god speaks from the sky

    That means someone is hearing
    The outcry and the birth-cry
    Of new life at its term.
    It means once in a lifetime
    That justice can rise up
    And hope and history rhyme.

    Sunday, July 22, 2007

    The Public Grading of Teachers

    Apparently, I don’t know what good teaching looks like. Erin Richards of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel starts her recent article titled “The Biggest Problem in American K-12 Education?” by asking the question, “What is the ‘crisis’ in American public education today?” Her answer? Teachers, and by extension the general public, do not know what constitutes “effective education.” Actually, the reporter states that “nobody agrees” on what effective teaching looks like. Unfortunately, what the article does prove is that Ms. Richards does not comprehend all that is involved with being an educator. It is unfortunate that her readers’ perception of what constitutes effective education is in part shaped by poorly conceptualized generalizations based on her impressions of a 12-minute video clip.

    Ms. Richards’ reactions are based on a presentation given to reporters this past weekend by Tony Wagner of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media. Attendees were asked to evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher based on a 12-minute video of the teacher conducting a lesson on Steinbeck’s The Pearl. Ms. Richards did not specify whether or not this was an introductory lesson or a closing lesson on the text, whether this was a group of eighth graders or a group of seniors, whether this was taught to a homogenous ability group (leveled-course) or a class of mixed-ability readers and writers, whether or not this was one of the first lessons of the course or the semester’s final discussion. All of these questions should factor into her evaluation of the teacher’s effectiveness. Lacking all of this information, or at the least not sharing this information with her readers, Ms. Richards emphatically declares the students’ writing as, “abysmal in terms of grammar, complex sentence construction and critical thinking,” stating later that “I'm sure we all would have scored the lesson lower if we had seen these writing samples first.” This statement has me the most concerned. Is it fair to grade an educator based on the work produced by his or her students? There are several problems with the approach of grading teachers based on the performance of their students, which is especially evident with the example 12-minute clip that Ms. Richards and her colleagues were shown.

    First, by what criteria are teachers judged? Ms. Richards reports that the speaker simply told the room of reporters to write a grade on an index card. No criteria were given, explained, or demonstrated. I highly doubt any teacher in the American educational system today would simply slap a letter grade on an assignment without first explaining a specific set of goals and criteria for how that the piece was to be evaluated. Were the reporters looking at how well the teacher engaged the entirety of the class? Were they evaluating the teacher on his classroom management and discipline style? Were they evaluating the teacher on the content of the lesson? Of course the room of reporters would give varying grades for the teacher in the video. Each reporter in that room was grading the video on a completely different and likely idiosyncratic set of standards. So the crisis more accurately identified by Ms. Richards is not that teachers do not know how to effectively teach. The crisis, instead, is that she and her colleagues do not know how to grade.

    This sort of approach to grading teachers is methodologically flawed. Had Ms. Richards’ been educated as a teacher, had this been a room of teachers and educational professionals sharing equivalent levels of educational training and pedagogical concerns, my reactions would certainly be different. But this was not the case. Unfortunately, her words carry added weight as they are presented in a public forum. Her words declare that education is in a crisis because no one is paying attention to what teachers do in the classroom. This is certainly not the case. Just pick up any newspaper in America today. Everyone is looking in on America’s classrooms, from the most qualified to the least.

    Am I arguing that public does not have the right to comment on a teacher’s performance? Of course not. Teachers are public servants. Especially, when it comes to the education of children, parents and communities must be involved. However, what I am arguing against is giving a blanket grade to the educational system as a whole and teachers specifically based on one presenter’s comments and a 12-minute video snippet. It is irresponsible and misleading on the part of the media and on the part of Ms. Richards. How should we grade her report?

    However, her article does raise a couple of significant questions: 1) Should teachers be “graded” based on their students’ performance? 2) Should there be any national criteria (outside of the employer’s criteria and state criteria already in place) for teacher evaluation? Thoughts?

    Friday, July 20, 2007

    Can't Make Me Shut Up

    In my attempt to learn more about blogging and its culture (and there most definitely is a blogger culture), I’ve stumbled across a number of wonderful blogs by teachers. You’ll see I’ve started to add them to my blogroll at the lower-right. Today in my adventures through blogsville, I ran across an article posted yesterday by Joel on So You Want to Teach titled ”Shut-up And Teach,” which sparked a bit of a controversy:

    "I get so tired of hearing teachers complaining about No Child Left Behind. I get so tired of hearing teachers complain about administration. I get so tired of hearing teachers complain about parents.

    Shut up and teach!
    It’s a simple concept, but some teachers seem to derive greater joy from feeling victimized than they do from feeling victorious. After all, it’s much simpler to complain than it is to create solutions.”

    There is impotence in the complaint. Although it feels good to have a complaint validated by another, alone the complaint is impotent. It alone does not evoke change. Action must be taken it order for the complaint to give life to change. I agree in part with what Joel is attempting to say, but I think it could be taken a bit further. I hope that no educator would abide by the philosophy of play by the rules and don’t make waves. Otherwise, we can hope for nothing more than the same. Change does not happen in moments of silence and stillness. To quote the old aphorism, "silence equals consent.”

    Joel’s article serves in part as a call to action. His sentiment is similar to the values that I try to instill in my high school students. Don’t just complain about a wrong, figure out what you can do to fix it, and do it. I want my students to problem solve. As educators we empower our students. We don’t want our students walking out of classrooms feeling disenfranchised, demoralized, and impotent. If they are the hope of our future, we must show them how change happens, so they can successfully claim the future as theirs.

    And while I do know and very much feel the squeezing tentacles of NCLB in my own classroom, if it is something that directly interferes with how I can best do my job, I will not just shut up and teach; I will stand up and take action. I choose the world of Paulo Freire when he writes, “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

    Thursday, July 19, 2007


    In so many respects, teaching is a balancing act. The balance between the professional and the personal, the profound and the profane, between free speech and censorship, hope and fear.

    I’ve been reading and researching a number of memoirs recently. The stories of child soldiers in Sierra Leone and those forced from their homes as a result of the civil war in the Sudan haunt me. I’ve reread stories of young men who survived unthinkable atrocity under South Africa’s apartheid and stories of girls living under strict Shira law in the Middle East. How poignant and important these stories are, the stories of youth surviving the harshest conditions and clinging to their hope for a better world. Of course such memoirs would be of the utmost significance in a world literatures course like the one I teach, the stories of young people the same age as my students persevering, reflecting on their experiences, and making a difference in their world. But I’m caught in a balancing act.

    In some respects, educating teenagers is perhaps the most difficult age group to teach. In middle school, parents and teachers need to shield adolescents from some of life’s most grotesque realities. As college students, no content matter is taboo. High school is a time of balance for teachers, students, and parents alike. It is a time when students are initiated into the world of adulthood, truths revealed and fantasies shattered. Students are initiated into the realities of our modern world in the hopes that they will learn from the mistakes of the generations before them. But how much is too much?

    I’ve just finished Ishmael Beah’s memoir A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. It is the heart-wrenching journey of a young man who loses his family and at twelve years old is forced into fighting Sierra Leon’s bloody civil war. Drugged and brainwashed by unthinkable acts of violence, Beah’s story is important for all readers, but for especially high school students. Such a memoir would help students begin to question the nature of violence in our modern world, contemplate the effects war has on children, question how such violence toward and against children is sustained and in some cases funded by the western world, and reflect on the privileges that they have as a result of growing up in the suburbs of the United States. It is from memoirs like Beah’s that students learn to take an interest in their world and hopefully take action to make it a more peaceful, more just world. But is it too much, too early?

    Stories like Ishmael Beah’s are violent. How could they not be? Beah’s story would not be as poignant, as real without his vivid descriptions of how he was kept in a drugged stupor in order to perpetrate horrendous acts of violence against his own countrymen. To leave such reflections and descriptions out of the book would lessen the importance of Beah’s journey. His is a story begging the world to wake up to the realities faced by child soldiers throughout the world today. Without such descriptions, his story would not have the impact that it does. But is this too much for a 15 or 16-year-old to grapple with and understand? Some would argue that Beah was forced into this violence at 12, so of course American high school students should not be shielded from such a memoir. In fact a story about the atrocities of violence would be one that is especially important to an increasingly more violent youth culture in our own country. Others might argue that such a story is too violent, too profane for the high school classroom. Where do we draw the line?

    I’m not sure if I will add Beah’s story to my list of recommended books this fall. In an ideal classroom, I would. In fact, the story was recommended to my by one of my former students, so I know I have students that would be moved by Beah’s words. But in a society where the threat of litigation is ever present, especially for teachers, I am stuck between the profound and the profane, between free speech and censorship, hope and fear.

    But in case you’re into some good non-western memoirs, might I suggest:
  • Ishmeal Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

  • Alphonsion Deng, Benson Deng, and Benjamin Ajak’s They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky

  • Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa

  • Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran

  • Shoba Narayan’s Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes

  • Paul Rusesabagina’s Ordinary Man

  • Yang Erche Namu’s Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World

  • Farah Ahmedi’s The Other Side of the Sky
  • Wednesday, July 18, 2007

    Dillard Calling

    So writing about Annie Dillard last week, sent me back to her book The Writing Life. It also forced me to reconsider how I was living each day, each hour. I’m struck by how much time I spend putting out fires in the classroom, and I recall a moment from this past semester that has me reconsidering how I teach.

    It’s the middle of my second block class. The January winds are tearing at the window screen, a whispering howl sneaking in. Inside, my tenth grade World Literature students are bustling around the room, finishing their work on a semester’s long research project that they will be sharing with their fellow students, staff, and family members at a cultures fair later in the week. At the moment, I have a swarm of students surrounding my desk at the front of the room. One needs a fundraising permission form signed, another wants to double check on the proper citation rules to follow for an interview, three are asking for permission to go to the art room, and another needs help finding up-to-date research on the current status of the African Union’s troops in Darfur; the rest are hovering over stacks of art supplies and folders of research. I’m simultaneously reaching for my pass book, jotting down a website address, and attempting to find my lost cup of now cold coffee among the clutter. From out of the chaos comes a small voice, “Geez, Ms. Ward, it’s amazing how you keep track of all the stuff going on.” It stops me in my tracks.

    I’m involved in a million different things at once, but not engaged with any single one, caught up in what comes next, not thinking about the moment in front of me. It is unfortunate that I find myself in many of these moments as a teacher – putting out one fire while trying to light another in a student. I get drawn into, enveloped by grading, disciplinary reports, departmental meetings, parent phone calls that still need to be made. All teachers do. It’s in moments like these that I need to be reminded by Annie Dillard to think of how I am spending this hour. It is this moment, this hour that makes me, not how much I plan ahead or how many tasks I can complete in a day. It was in a moment like this that I printed out the Annie Dillard quote.

    Crumpled and coffee stained, the quote clings steadfast to the top of my computer monitor, centered above the screen. I found it recently while clearing away the books and random notes scribbled on scraps that used to call my desk home. I had printed it to serve as a mantra, a reminder, but it had been shuffled into the daily clutter. The quote has since re-established its presence, its place of prominence. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” Annie Dillard, whose writing I first encountered in an undergraduate literature course, is a writer who calls us, who calls me, to engage fully in the world. And this past week, she has been calling to me quite a bit.

    You’d think I’d need to be beat on the head for her message to sink in. =)

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