Thursday, July 30, 2009

Refreshing the Palate

Sometime in middle school, my parents took me to an especially fancy meal. I don’t remember if the meal celebrated someone’s anniversary or perhaps it might have been Mother’s Day. I don’t remember what I ordered or what I wore. I have only vague impressions of the room—lots of French windows, cloth napkins. My memory centers on the small dollops of sorbet served between two of the courses. Perched on tender twists of white paper, pink scoops of watermelon and mint ice waited to melt quickly on our tongues. The remarkable pleasure of the slightly sweetened ice lit up my mouth. Back in the days before ice dispensing home refrigerators, the crushed ice struck my twelve year old self as sheer luxury.

The experience gave me an appreciation for the power of small, quality refreshment. In the past week, I graded and returned summer research essays, and I administered final exams. Our first day of in-service for the fall semester falls on Thursday, August 20th. Between now and then, I’m mixing up some figurative sorbet. We’re part of the economy choosing a “stay-cation” this year, and I’ve got a few tidbits planned to refresh my teaching palate. I’ve got some crafting plans with my little guy, and a pile of stuff to read and enjoy. A childhood girlfriend will be flying in for a visit, and my husband and I plan to get to the latest Harry Potter film. I’m looking forward to coming back to both my classroom and this blog space in a few short weeks refreshed and ready for another course of ideas and discussion…

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

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Differentiating for High Fliers

True Life Dialogue:

Student: “How strict is the five page minimum for the research essay?”

Me: “I’m looking for at least one line on the sixth page; it’s a full five page minimum.”

Student: “Really? Because I’ve completely exhausted my argument in three and a half pages…I think I’ve fully addressed the issue.”

Me: “Well, feel free to pose a deeper, more complicated argument if you need to…”

Student: “Oh, really? I didn’t know we were allowed to exceed the parameters of the assignment. It seemed pretty basic.”

Me: “Teaching you is an endless source of pleasure.”

Okay, so I didn’t say that last part. I said something like, “Absolutely.” My memory gets a little fuzzy because my blood pressure rose in response to the student’s last comment. Exceed the parameters of the assignment, indeed…

I could blame this issue on the fact that I’ve drafted off beat assignments in an effort to side step plagiarism. I could defend the fact that my off beat assignment is vague enough to permit deep and thoughtful answers for those who seek them. However, I’ve decided to confront myself with a more uncomfortable truth this student put a finger upon: I differentiate better for developing students than I do for high flying students.

As a student, I flew high academically. I know, no one wants to see my transcript now, but for a good portion of my life, I drew considerable self esteem from that sucker. I know first hand that high fliers can provide teachers with a challenge, and quite frankly, I’ve shied away from said challenge. In my experience as both a student and a teacher, high fliers are often tracked. By deciding not to teach honors classes, I mostly avoid high fliers and the challenges (and rewards, to be fair) that they present. I’ve focused my energies on teaching “average,” “on-level, “parallel,” or whatever a school district calls the “regular kids.” In those “regular” classes, I often teach developing students, and I’ve worked hard to develop content and methods that meet those students’ needs quietly and effectively. In those “regular” classes, I sometimes teach high flying students, and I’ve not addressed their needs as effectively.

High fliers usually show up in my classes because of choices that took them off the honors track when they were younger or because they don’t want to diffuse their energies from their high level math and science classes. Why haven’t I differentiated effectively for them? Well, for the most part, they do well. It’s easier to ignore the unmet needs of students who earn A’s.

Besides the fact that their boredom and lack of challenge doesn’t manifest in a measurable way, I’ve gotten this far without successfully differentiating for high fliers because I don’t know how to do it covertly. They’re wily, these high fliers. I don’t want to give them “extra” work. I don’t think they’d roll over for more difficult variations of essay assignments. My differentiation for developing students happens in collusion with the student: “Pssst. Here, do this extra worksheet and meet with me after class, and we’ll make sure you pass this class.” How do I make the work more challenging without it seeming punitive, especially if a student has purposely taken my class to avoid English class challenges?

Ugh. I need to give this one lots more thought. I know that challenges make me and my teaching grow, but sometimes complacency looks soooo much more relaxing…

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

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Calculating Conversions

This summer, I’m teaching a hybrid class for the first time; we meet half in the classroom and half online. Traditionally, the “seat time” for this course would be about six hours a week. I’ve tried to design online lessons and activities for three hours a week, plus there’s the usual amount of homework.

It’s really made me sit and think about how “teaching and/or learning time” can be calculated. I’ve taught this course many, many times in the traditional classroom setting, and I’ve taught fully online courses, but I’ve never tried a hybrid before now. To design each week’s online module, I took a week’s lessons and considered what would work better in the traditional classroom and what would work better online. It’s a huge consideration, and one on which I’ll need to spend quite a bit of time debriefing myself.

What’s caught my initial consideration is how to measure “teaching and/or learning time.” If students sat in the traditional classroom for thirty minutes while I alternately lectured and led a discussion, calling on various students for intermittent responses, students could spend a good portion of that thirty minutes passively listening about the text. (Or perhaps surreptitiously texting… Ahem, I mean never…) If I create an online discussion thread where students have to post two questions and then answer the two questions posted by three other students (essentially answering six questions), students may spend fifteen to twenty minutes actively writing about and responding to the text. (While listening to music and talking on the phone? No. See, in a hybrid, I only imagine the online session behavior, and I imagine it is spent rapt. Some pencil chewing…Lots of text referencing…Shush. It’s my imagination, and a girl’s gotta dream…) So does that fifteen minutes of writing count as less than the thirty traditional minutes of listening? Do I try to calculate three literal hours of online work, or because the nature of the online work is more active (students have to “prove” they’re there by producing something), is the time calculation converted somehow? If hybrid students accomplish the same amount of assignments in a week I previously gathered from students during a fully traditional teaching of the course, can we call it done? Is time spent in class letting one or two students (or even ourselves) dominate a group discussion time better spent? What about the time spent waiting while late students are caught up or people without materials are assisted? It’s forcing me to look back at my traditional teaching and consider how well I spent that time…

I won’t really know my own answers to these questions until I finish the course and see these hybrid students’ research essays and final exams. Kind of a “the proof is in the pudding” philosophy, I guess…It’s funny. At first, teaching a hybrid kind of felt like getting away with something, but in truth, I’m more accountable for my time than in the traditional classroom. In the traditional classroom, I taught for six hours because I kept them six hours. Now I really have to think about what those three online hours need to look like to constitute me having taught them…It’s certainly a growing experience.

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

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Other Side

I have mumbled, grumbled, and struggled to design interactive media that appeals to my Generation-So-Don’t-Think-Like-Me students who thrive in a non-linear environment. Yet I feel about teaching the way the dancers on So You Think You Can Dance describe movement—I just have to do it. (They would use an exclamation point. I certainly gush less than they do.) I’m a teaching creature, truly. So I have sucked it up and taken my linear laden self and waded into the world of online education and media. This effort has born my own blogging and the development of my online reading. As I read a recent article on Time Magazine’s website, I realized I have become more similar to that which I once could not understand…

Listen, I have trash taste in media. I read Gawker as faithfully as the Washington Post. I cry over One Tree Hill as loudly as I weep for characters in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. (That book killed a part of me. I dare a public school educator/parent to be unmoved by that narrative.) Link by link, I have found myself some funny and inspirational places. Lately, I’ve been drawn to coverage of Governor Sanford. Ugh. Gosh. The emails--really? (What part in me is voyeur and what part is a grad student glad to have confirmation from a primary source?) At any rate, my Internet habits recently brought me to Caitlin Flanagan’s “Why Marriage Matters” via Time Magazine’s website. I’m not a regular on Time’s site, so I was surprised to see Flanagan’s piece littered with links: “See the top 10 regrettable emails,” “See the top 10 mistresses,” “Watch a gay marriage wedding video,” “See snapshots from a very special wedding,” and those are just the ones I clicked on. I’ve read a number of Flanagan’s pieces in The Atlantic over the years, and her writing tone doesn’t suggest she’d take kindly to constant interruption. It kind of made me giddy to click away and click back to her text. I was halfway through her article before it dawned on me—I’ve become one of “them.” I’m not reading an article from beginning to end. I am “she who segues.” The culture I waded into, just to learn some ways to relate, has sung its siren song to me and drawn me in. Interrupting Flanagan’s prose to go look at photos of famous mistresses feels like gesturing to my mother with my index finger to be quiet for a moment while I listen to the television. (Quite frankly, it just isn’t done.) Oh, the indulgence…Oh, the naughty pleasure…

It’s given me a reader’s buzz. I don’t regret it. I’m not sorry. I’m glad I know how to be linear should the situation require it, but oh glory be, the intermittent attention technique to reading a long article might be something I underestimated. Maybe I’ll add commiseration to the tools I use as an educator come the fall…

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