Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Why is "Over the Summer" so much Shorter than I Remember?

Ah, vacation. The first two weeks of August will find me “unplugged” with family before showing up for fall in-service on August 18th. I won’t be emailing colleagues back and forth about the revisions to the department exam we thought we’d get done “over the summer.” I won’t be combing through the new textbook and trying to figure out how students can register themselves for the online goodies while reshaping my units. I won’t be having meetings and writing letters to organize next fall’s Conference of English Teachers. No, I don’t do those things when I travel with my family, which means that all that stuff I thought I’d do across the luxurious stretch of time referred to as “over the summer” needs to be done in the next ten days. Gulp. Where does the time go?

I know our perception changes with age. The tree we climbed isn’t as high as we once thought. Wifey isn’t as naughty as it gets. And summer doesn’t last as long when I’m not twelve and passing the hot, languorous hours reading or building stuff out of boxes in the basement. (People can sense how cool I was, I’m sure!) The pile of professional reading still awaits my desire to plow through it. (I did, however, read all my brain candy favorites this summer, which has refreshed my love of reading, something every English teacher should reek of come fall, right?) The textbooks we didn’t choose, but I thought might still have worthwhile material, still taunt me that they may fix all my pedagogical problems if only I took the time to truly look at them. (I really did read the book we actually chose.) Will the department exam be finished? Yes. I don’t think I’ll have freshly Xeroxed copies to hand out on the first day of in-service, but I’m pretty sure we’ll have it done well in advance of the end of the first semester. Will I redo my units in step with the new textbook like I promised myself I would? Yes. However, I think I’ll only have the first three weeks student-ready “over the summer;” the rest will have to be generated as the semester rolls along. Will I have things in place for the October conference? Yes. I’ll have the room booked and the work orders in, but I won’t have it all done before my classes begin again.

It just seems that my fantasies about what I’ll get done “over the summer” never take into account my genuine need to rest. (Let me interrupt myself here to say that I am very grateful to get rest; in my early years of teaching I worked summer jobs and didn't take home school projects. It's a good trade-off overall...) Besides making progress on my work goals, I’ve actually watched shows that started at 10 p.m. this summer. I’ve read fictional books during the day. I’ve done crafty activities with my kid. I did not go through everything in the attic or finish my son’s “first year” baby book (he’s turning four), but who knows? I’ve got ten days before we travel, and because teachers get to live adult lives along a school calendar, I’ll keep the faith that everything gets done “over the summer.”

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, July 11, 2008

Reading, and Writing, and Logic, Oh my!

Our English department is going to a new textbook this fall, so this July I’m making myself go through it page by page. I even went online and registered for the online enrichment aspects, and guess what? Much of this content looks really, really, good. It looks much like some stuff I’ve made myself, only fresher, with more recent cultural references and better visual interfaces.

So what’s my problem?

Well…ummm…I didn’t make it. Listen, I always use the book like a good team player, but I tend to customize my course with lots of my own stuff. It’s hard work, but then I know the ins and outs of what I’m asking my students to do. (Does that sound persuasive? Because I suspect I may be full of bologna...)

The truth is that the publishers are catching up with me and passing me by as they do. I know this should be good news; this means I don’t have to revitalize the stuff I’ve made. Instead, I can really focus on the holes still left in my curriculum which need more interactive, inventive lessons and activities to get the concepts across.

So what’s my problem?

Oy—what’s left is the really hard stuff! If I spent a chunk of time this summer upgrading the parts of my lesson I know are working, I could get a cheap sense of satisfaction of having worked hard. But it turns out the publisher has done that for me…It’s like coming home feeling put upon because I have to make dinner and finding a family member smiling in an apron saying, “Guess what? I made dinner so you have time to organize the garage like you always say you want to do!” The garage? Tonight? Really?

In truth, I’m writing this piece instead of confronting this curriculum challenge. Here are the two major questions it seems I cannot pretend I don’t have time to think about:

How can I allow students a degree of choice in choosing their research topics while still monitoring that they actually read the articles they find? How do I monitor that they read the articles accurately?

I don’t want to narrow the pool of topics too dramatically, but if I allow 125 students to all write a topic of their choosing with 5 to 7 sources each, how do I monitor the reading comprehension? Currently, they fill out a reading guide sheet for each source, but I’m discovering that these sheets aren’t done with as much care as I’d like or as accurately as I’d like to believe. With a variety of topics, I cannot find and read everyone’s articles to ensure they truly summarize the intent of the source accurately, yet I’m reluctant to have students choose from a list of only five topics just so I can police the reading.

How can I work more on logical argument without creating more and more written assignments to grade?

I know how to use portfolios to get students to write at a higher volume, but I’m not really concerned about their landscape descriptions or personal narratives. One of the biggest problems with my students’ writing is their logic. I get a lot of “If A = B and B = C, then A = popcorn.” Seriously. I know that by reading more articles and drafting more arguments we can work on this, but I don’t think I can handle too much more grading (because this kind of writing requires REAL grading, not the marking grammar while I listen to Law and Order kind of grading). I need to take other things out to put more logical argument writing in, and nothing clearly jumps to mind as unnecessary.

Those are the two big concerns it seems I’m going to have to chip away at this summer because some dang publisher has done a delightful job revitalizing all the grammar, identify the audience, and MLA practice materials. Please send ideas and chocolate.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, July 4, 2008

Oh Beautiful, for Spacious Skies...

Forgive me if this sounds too schmaltzy, but I exercise my patriotism most through teaching in America’s public education system. “Free [equitable] education for all” is one heck of a goal, and by participating in its execution, I feel I am contributing to the democracy. No, really!

Sometimes it keeps me up at night. When I watch the news and see a national poll that makes my eyes cross or catch a late night comedian laughing at “man on the street” interviews where people don’t know who is Secretary of State, I think to myself, “Time to get crackin’!” When I consider with a shudder just who might make up a “jury of my peers,” I draw comfort from the fact that I wield direct influence on the developing thinking and empathy of the general citizenry. No, I know I’m just one teacher in a single classroom of a huge nation, but I feel like I’m doing my part to sustain a Constitution and a three branch government whose design always stuns me and fills me with national pride.

Once during a conversation with a long-time friend who serves our nation as a Marine, I spoke sheepishly about how his service to our country humbled me. In part because he’s a gracious person and I hope in part because it’s true, he told me that he thought my service as a teacher related integrally to his. “Many of my young Marines have only a high school education, Kate,” he said. “I send them on reconnaissance missions, and they write down what they observe. More often than I’d like, the reports contain misplaced modifiers and confusing construction to the degree that I need to send out another group, putting more people at risk, because I cannot determine from the report what they observed. It makes a big difference when these kids can write.” Now, I realize I’m pre-disposed to believe strong writing and excellent grammar can foster world peace and harmony, so it’s not surprising that I felt moved by my friend’s perspective. I do not equate public school teaching with military service, but I hadn’t considered before this conversation how my work could have a ripple effect all the way to Iraq.

Teaching the everyday, ordinary citizen in the United States of America to think, read, and write critically impacts every facet of our democracy. Our democracy bases itself on trust in the public, and education for all prepares the public for that responsibility. When we teachers work actively to improve our schools, to raise standards, and to teach our students, especially those students not moving directly into further formal education, we secure the future of our nation. It might sound overly dramatic and self-aggrandizing to some people, but I really think the work of us teachers holds such power. On this Fourth of July, I encourage all my fellow teachers to take pride in their contribution to our nation as we celebrate this brave, wild experiment called the United States of America.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher