Monday, December 5, 2011

Flipping Out

At the recent NCTE convention in Chicago, I saw a clip of spoken word poet Sarah Kay performing "B."  If you haven't seen it, click this link right now.  Kay's brilliance comes from the way she sees and hears unique linguistic combinations in ordinary words.  The presentation that featured Kay's TED talks recitation of "B" was about mentor and model texts.  Penny Kittle showed the clip, then asked Kelly Gallagher, and the audience, to pick a line and use it to jump start a free write.  There are so many lines in the poem, choosing one was tough; in the end, I chose to write in response to the line "getting the wind knocked out of you is the only way to remind your lungs how much they like the taste of air."  If this line does not define the craft of teaching, I don't know what does.

I mean, let's be real for a minute: How many times have you begun a lesson, believed in what you were teaching, had a clear goal in mind, saw in your minds eye the aha moment playing at the corners of your students eyes and mouths, and suddenly the reality challenges your view of who or what you are?  If you aren't raising your hand, you probably aren't telling the truth.

How do we maximize instructional time so that students remain engaged and still get the coverage of prior knowledge needed to be successful?

A new technological trend has teachers flipping out in response to to this question.  "Flipping" instruction is not just a profane phrase anymore (not that it ever was).  A flipped sequence of instruction is one that literally flips daytime lecture with nighttime application.

Well that couldn't possibly work, Dan?!  Are you "flipping" mad?!

My mental health aside, think about the possibilities; the good folks at the Harvard Education Letter did.  The November/December 2011 edition of the letter addresses the use of flipping in schools to raise student performance:

"Since she began 'flipping' lectures and homework assignments, high school science teacher Shelley Wright has noticed something: the number of students failing her course has dropped from the usual three to zero.  Departmental exam scores are higher, too."

Wright teaches sophomore, junior, and senior science at Cornerstone Christian School in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, so her practice and the flexibility surrounding varies compared with many of the teaching contexts we have; however, the article contains other teacher pioneers in this instructional method.

Despite this difference, any strategy that seems to improve students' abilities to learn and retain information is welcome information.  I have spoken with a number of my science and math colleagues and they almost instantly saw the appeal of such a practice.  One of my colleagues even began excitedly theorizing about extra lab time.  The trouble for us, as teachers of English, is finding a way to apply this strategy to our classrooms.  We generally don't have discrete, measurable skills that can be analyzed in a single lesson.  In math classes, students can learn a method for working a problem.  In science classes, students can discuss the effects of acid-base reactions and begin to solve acid-base equations.  In English, teaching students to read or write in a single lecture is laughable; what could we teach?

I was recently rereading Deeper Reading by Kelly Gallagher and I found the answer.  Having students measure their own level of comprehension could easily adapt to video lectures at night.  Then, I came up with a sequence I think could work for English teachers; below I have provided my idea for a sequence of flipped instruction for the English classroom as well as the outline of a flipped instructional sequence as it appears in the Harvard Education Letter.

Basic Outline for Flipped Instruction:
Day 1: Exploring - "explore the material with an activity building on prior knowledge"
Night 1: Explaining - "watch and sometimes interact with some form of media online"
Day 2: Applying - raise "questions about the video from the night before" and pose "an application problem"

Flipped English Class on the Opening of The Great Gatsby:
Day 1: Exploring - Students open the text and read the first couple pages (up to that break as the action becomes present instead of the reflective frame); they write questions they have from their reading.  The class discusses Fitzgerald and his life using the opening paragraphs of the novel as a frame for the discussion (ex: Fitzgerald is sometimes called the Jazz Age moralist and he opens the novel with a discussion of judgment).  Finish reading the opening chapter.  Students ask more questions, this time adding ones about spots where they struggled with comprehension.  Unanswered questions are collected before students go home.
Night 1: Explaining - Students can pull up audio clips from the National Endowment for the Arts's The Big Read website.  They can watch teacher created videos about comprehension strategies to help them measure their own understanding, applying the strategies to brief articles on background information for the novel.  They could also watch videos from students or other sources about the value of what Gallagher calls "second-draft reading."
Day 2: Applying - The teacher brings up the unanswered questions to see if students have found answers for them on their own through the videos or the background reading.  Students reread the first chapter in class, rating their second reading using their newly learned comprehension strategy.  The remaining questions about the content of the first chapter are answered.  Questions are generated about what will happen next.

I know it is rough and somewhat idealistic outline, but it is a starting point.  The real value of flipping for English classes would be the development of skills that will help students become more successful independent readers.  The more skillful the reader, the more likely he or she will not struggle to read independently assigned text; thus, even though two days are spent on one chapter of a novel (the essence of luxury), the time can be made up as students learn to read, not just consume, text with more skill and understanding.

There are many objections and questions we could raise about flipping: access, knowledge of ed tech, what to include in a video, and where to find good videos are just a few.  These questions are best tackled by individuals from each school.  I could sit here in my comfy chair at home in Virginia and offer grand pronouncements on ways to avoid these obstacles, but that wouldn't help many of us develop strategies to overcome these obstacles.  Instead, I challenge you to look at each of these challenges and ask "what if" instead of "yes, but."  For example, what if I could flip my instruction?  What if I had the same success as Shelley Wright?  What if my students got excited about homework?  What if having them access lectures online brought some new motivation to their learning?  I can't be sure, but I think this idea is not just another idea to make the public school system behave in the same way with a different outfit.  This idea seems to require the kind of revolutionary thinking that could reshape the way public education works.

In any case, I have to go for now.  I am going to try and record a lecture about rating comprehension and post it on my class page to help my students with their break reading;  I'm excited because I get to play with an iPad to do it.  Who says that we get too old for toys?

I hope you have a wonderful holiday season and winter break.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Follow Hashtags to Learn

by Tara Seale
Twitter is one of my mainstays for communicating and learning from teachers around the world. I may not know their cell phone, their email, converse with them on a regular basis, or even live in the same country, but Twitter connects me to educators who are willing to share and connect using technology. When I first started tweeting, the constant stream of communication made me feel guilty and overwhelmed. First, I worried about my responsibility in responding to anyone who tweeted me or replied to one of my tweets, so I continually checked my twitter account to see if I needed to respond, which later led to an overwhelmed feeling, making me want to give up on Twitter. I realized that I needed a new perspective about how to use this social networking tool without becoming so overwhelmed.
Now, I see Twitter as a large flowing river with many twists, turns, and side streams which, unfortunately, I do not have time to explore, but because of the potential, when I can, I jump in and swim around immersing myself in a depth of discoveries. Hashtags assist me in my swim so that I narrow my exploration instead of dog paddling without direction.
What are hashtags? The first hashtag I want to introduce is #engchat. I am hosting an #engchat Twitter discussion on Monday, November 14, 2011. A hashtag is proceeded by, of course, a hashtag, plus an acronym or abbreviated topic. This allows Twitter followers to zone in on their area of interest and follow the conversation and add to it. In regards to the conversation on Monday, Twitter users need to log in to Twitter and follow the conversation that is marked with #engchat. It is helpful to use an app to follow a hashtag; I use tweetdeck so that I can see the posts related to the hashtag in one column, but Meenoo Rami, founder of #engchat, advises that followers of the Monday night #engchat conversations use Tweetchat. Regardless of which app you use, hashtags are instrumental in connecting tweeters with topics they want to understand and know more about.
As you can probably discern, followers of the #engchat hashtag are English teachers, and I would like to direct you to a great video and description about how #engchat began at the Digital Is National Writing Project Blog. I encourage you to read the blog post, but also view the Bud Hunt video.
Besides #engchat, there are other hashtags that also help to connect educators. The best list is probably compiled at the Cybrary Man Blog. In addition, the Edudemic blog claims to have the full list (nearly) of educational hashtags.
Although hashtags are great for connecting teachers on a daily basis, they are also dynamic in convention settings. Take for example the NCTE Convention. If you were at last year's NCTE in Orlando and followed the convention hashtag of #NCTE1o you would have learned about potential tweetups - when people who have the same interests and follow the same hashtags meet F2F (face to face). For example, #ecning tweeters - English Companion Ning followers and contributors - were able to meet face to face and get to know each other beyond the cyberworld, which I believe everyone enjoyed. Additionally, those who followed ncte10 last year were able to learn about excellent presentations by following the hashtag ncte10 even if they were unable to attend those presentations. Therefore, I encourage you to follow #ncte11 so that you can keep up with NCTE convention happenings on Twitter.
This post has highlighted only a few of the potential connections that hashtags create in the 21st century. I plan to introduce and discuss more on Monday, November 14th at #engchat, so if you have never participated in a Twitter hashtag discussion, I encourage you to join in on Monday to see what it is all about.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Writing for our Students

I recently got a new teaching position that puts me in contact with truly gifted students. I mean, they are scary smart. One student was able to detail for me the specific technological specs on Wednesday's iOS 5 down to how they rewrote the code (if this seems vague, it is because his discussion was over my head). At the same time, the student could not write a crisp and pithy sentence to save his life. I thought I was going to have to start charging gas money for traveling those convoluted, passive-voice-driven superhighways of syntax. The experience is part of a lesson I have been learning since I began this job: genius does not make one smart.

These gifted students suffer from one of the most heinous educational problems of our day: neglect based on ability, or conscientious neglect (I am not basing this term on any research, it is something I am trying to define). Conscientious neglect is the teacher who does not provide scaffolding or clearly-written instructions or criteria because his or her students are not low-performing.

I am struggling right now with figuring out how much direct instruction and scaffolding is needed to help my gifted students increase their ability to read. Yep, you read that. We received the results of our literacy test back from our coordinator and some of my students were below basic. Why? Well, let's detail some possibilities: it was a diagnostic, so they blew it off; the test was beneath them; the testing administrator and a data entry person may have entered some data incorrectly. Now, let me give you some reasons why the scores seem accurate: they are consistently low in nonfiction as opposed to fiction; they are struggling with finding main ideas in nonfiction, a fact mirrored in their writing; the curriculum provides for almost zero nonfiction in 4 years.

The curriculum is the biggest stumbling block. In four years, the extent of their nonfiction includes: works read for research (a.k.a. without teacher guidance), a handful of essays, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Slouching towards Bethlehem. The irony here is that most programs for struggling readers swear by nonfiction for engaging and training their pupils.

On top of this pile lie assignments whose clarity is akin to the expressions of the Rapa Nui statues. There is enough detail to recognize human faces in those stern stone carvings, but to get more requires feats of invention and imagination, two things that students trying to follow instructions don't need muddying the waters. I mean, writing research papers on literature is hard enough without being unclear about the criteria.

As the National Day on Writing approaches, I encourage all of us to look at what we have written for our students. Are we modeling the care necessary to help our students succeed in class? Or are we being conscientious neglecters, overestimating or unfairly burdening our students' abilities to see into our minds and figure out what we want? I know I have some ways to go before finding that balance for my gifted students, but it is a journey, an examination, worth taking.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Using Prezi to teach Poetry

by Tara Seale

Prezi is similar to PowerPoint, but so much more. It is like putting an extra shot of espresso in your Starbuck's. The wide canvas, the zooming in and out, and the novelty make it an engaging tool for presenting new information to students.

Lisa Westbrook, a 9th grade English teacher at Bryant High School, is currently using Prezi to do just that. Recently, she created a Prezi to teach her students how to analyze poetry. Click on the image below to view Lisa's prezi.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Keeping the Webs Off - "Making Summer Count"

As a teacher of AP students, I have become intimately familiar with the annual struggle that is summer assignments. How much do I assign? How much do I respect the students' need for a break? How do I keep them learning while they wait to return in September (ok, this one might be a bit optimistically stated)?

The truth is that this choice is difficult. So, where do you draw the line?

First, we need to consider if the line is even necessary. Do students need activities to do over the summer? The purpose of such activities is to stop the gap that develops over the course of the summer. Keeping the academic side of the brain active is important, especially when students are going to be asked to college-level work upon their return. A recent study cited in an article from Utah's The Salt Lake Tribune shows that students lose an average of one month of learning over the summer. For students on an alternating day schedule, that is one-half of a marking period. For students on an everyday 7-period day, that is three-quarters of a marking period. For students on an everyday block schedule, that is an entire marking period. And some of my colleagues wonder why students don't take the final quarter seriously.

So, keeping students active academically in the summertime is important. How do we honor their lives as people, too? we provide them the choice of how to exercise their academic muscles. I am going to detail my summer assignment for AP English Language and Composition below. I am sharing this assignment to show how I respect students' time over the summer and still get them to practice good academic habits.

Requirement 1: A Writer's Notebook
Students are asked to keep a notebook about their lives over the summer. They are asked to place one entry per week of the summer in the journal in any form they wish. They can write about what they are doing in any form from poetry to prose. These entries are used later in the first quarter to talk about different modes of writing.

Requirement 2: Rhetorical Note Cards
I provide students with a list of rhetorical terms and logical fallacies. Over the course of the summer, students are asked to define each term on a flashcard. Then, they must provide an example of each term from something they've read. This leads me to the final requirement.

Requirement 3: Reading
Student must read one age- and ability-appropriate fiction and nonfiction piece over the summer. I use part of the final weeks of the year (you know, the post-state-testing lull) to introduce incoming AP students to rhetorical analysis. Students must analyze both texts rhetorically and write a brief essay explaining the big differences in analysis of fictional and nonfictional texts. I provide the students with some options of fiction and nonfiction texts, but ultimately they decide what they read and then get approval for their choices. In this way, I can join them in their discovery of new texts through the recommendations they make.

All in all, students do the following over the summer:
1. Write one paper
2. Keep a journal with a minimum of nine entries
3. Read two books: one fiction, one nonfiction
4. Create some note cards

Thus far, that is the best I have devised in terms of respecting my students' lives over the summer while still getting them to practice their academic skills. What I would like to see happen is something like this summer assignment with one-on-one academic counseling for ALL students. According to the article from The Salt Lake Tribune, students from lower socioeconomic brackets "don’t catch up during the summer, and they lose more ground the next summer. Over time, that loss is cumulative, and it’s really hurting [them]."

Imagine if teachers were given eleven months of pay instead of ten. The extra month would account for an every other week open academic "camp" for students whose families cannot afford to send them. AP students, those with the most academic ability, are being given an advantage that would really help lower-income students; however, they would need guidance and an accountability system to ensure that they show up. After all, schools are failing lower-income students everyday, why should they believe that a summer program would actually help them?

These are just some ideas about how to address the summer gap. I am going to get my hands on a copy of that report from The Salt Lake Tribune and see what they have to say. In the mean time, here is the electronic copy.

What ways do you stimulate student learning over the summer? Do you believe there should even be summer assignments? Would you support summer assignments with direct instruction for all students?

McCombs, J. Sloan, C. H. Augustine, H. L. Schwartz, S. J. Bodilly, B. McInnis, D. S. Lichter and A. Brown Cross. Making summer count: How summer programs can boost children's learning. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011. Also available in print form.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The iPad 2

by Tara Seale
My school district recently purchased an iPad 2 for my classroom. Up until now, I was not sure how I could engage students using only one iPad in my classroom, and like most educators, I believe technology is only worth spending money on if it can engage multiple students, so I was not too excited about the first iPad. That has all changed with the iPad 2.
Why? The original iPad had great apps, and it served as a great experience for one student, but for an entire class to view an app and all of its features, a student, a group of students, or a teacher would have to demonstrate the product produced with the app under a document camera, which would produce blurry images, be difficult to see, and lack engagement. Not really worth the money.

The current version of the iPad has changed the blurry images into clear images which can be viewed using an adapter for a tv screen or an overhead projector. You need an Apple Digital AV Adapter for $39 if you are using an HDMI port or an HDTV monitor. I am not quite as lucky to have those options, and I doubt many classroom teachers have those options, but the $29 Apple VGA adapter works well with classroom overhead projectors. In my classroom, I run the VGA cable through the ELMO to my Smartboard, but you do not need an ELMO or a Smartboard, the ipad will connect straight to the projector with an adapter.

The apps a teacher can use with students for presentations are numerous. Teachers and students can present information to the rest of the students in the class in a variety of engaging apps. If you are interested in exploring apps to use in a high school classroom, check out the following links: iPads in Schools, best free apps for education, and Cybrary Man's website with numerous links to articles and iPad apps.

I took the photo at a the Hot Springs Institute for Technology conference Schools Without Walls iPad workshop. At the workshop, teachers used the app Puppet Pals to create puppet shows to tell the stories of famous legends. To show the audience the puppet shows, teachers placed the iPad 2 on the dock which has a port for a VGA adapter, as shown in the photo. The adapter is connected to the the LCD cable which projected the puppet show onto the screen for all to see and hear.

Friday, May 13, 2011

National Board Requirements: Rigorous and Rewarding

by Tara Seale
Recently, I completed my last national board requirement: the ELA Adolescence and Young Adulthood Assessment. What a relief!
The portfolio alone is daunting, and after the stress of mailing it off, I still faced the final assessment at the assessment center.
If you are wondering if you should attempt National Board, as a first year candidate, I would like to provide advice. I am in my sixth year of teaching, and this is the first year in which I feel like I am prepared to tackle the demands of National Board and also have a chance of passing. I realize that you can sign up for National Boards before your sixth year of teaching, and I wish the best to those teachers, but I could not have completed all parts of the portfolio. I do not want to sound too disparaging, but if you have less than five or six years teaching experience, this process is intimidating and stressful. With that said, attempting national boards has not only been one of the most demanding experiences of my teaching career, it has also been one of the most insightful.
Because I had one of the best reviewers possible, Delynne West, an elementary music teacher in my school district, I soon realized, thanks to her commentary, that I was a descriptive writer and not an analytical writer. Describing what I hoped to achieve and how I hoped to achieve it is just part of the National Board process, but not the most important part. National Board focuses on the student, and not what the teacher is doing.
As a frequent blogger, I write out descriptive examples of lesson plans and activities, and National Board assessors are somewhat interested in what I plan to attempt in the classroom, but mostly they are concerned with how it impacts students. I might have the greatest idea ever, but if it lacks rationale and if I cannot explain student impact, then it is irrelevant.
My greatest challenge in completing my National Board Portfolio was overcoming my descriptive writing and delving into the reasons I do what I do in the classroom. It is not enough that I believe that I know what I am doing, I still have to explain my decisions to people who have an interest in the achievements of my students: administrators, other teachers, parents, national board assessors, and of course, myself.
It is that process that has shaped me and forced me to continue to grow, challenge, and expect more from my students as I grow, challenge, and expect more from myself.
If you had asked me in February how I felt about National Boards, I probably would have asked you how I could escape the process without owing money back to my state, but just like my students who at mid-year always act like I am expecting too much out of them, I acquiesced and found a way to continue, believe, and succeed.
Most of us, teachers and students alike, need to be pushed to be the person, the inspiration, and the leader we can be. National Boards is definitely the institution that has pushed me to that next level.
So now that I have completed this process and I have the long wait until November to see if I have attained the standards to become a National Board Certified Teacher, I want to commiserate with the other teachers who are waiting with me, but I also want to celebrate the teachers who have attained National Board. You have achieved an award that affirms you are a hardworking teacher, and most importantly, your students know that you teach with your heart; therefore, you serve as an inspiration to other teachers to work through this rigorous and rewarding process.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Enough Already

The great philosopher/education advocate Neil Postman is fond of quoting Marshall McLuhan's famous phrase "the message is the medium." The case of Natalie Munroe ties directly to this concept. Ms. Munroe is the teacher who has lately been under attack for a blog that had some *ahem* controversial statements on it. Some people love her; they taut her as the newest voice in educational truth. Others hate her; they believe she represents all that is wrong with the modern educational system: the teachers. With any luck, these polarized and myopic views will fall aside and Ms. Munroe will become a representative of what freedom truly means.

In Experience and Education, John Dewey had the following to say about the nature of freedom:

"The only freedom that is of any importance is freedom of intelligence, that is to say, freedom of observation and of judgment exercised in behalf of purposes that are intrinsically worthwhile."

This is particularly apt in the case of Ms. Munroe. If you click the title of this post, you will be taken to a website that had coverage of the story last week. Notice the clever removal from context of the phrases in the second paragraph. If these phrases were located near names or even highly intricate descriptions of students, I might understand. As it is, they were written in a way that preserved student anonymity; thus, no one's rights were violated. What really rankles people, especially those who left the inane comments below the story, is that this teacher would have the temerity to speak about the frustrations of her classroom in a public forum (yes, the internet is a public space; however, that is an issue for a whole different post).

At the climax of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, Howard Roark dynamites the Cortlandt Housing Project because other men warped his design. In his speech before the jury at his trial, he gives voice to Rand's philosophy saying that the creator's vision is his representation of truth. Essentially, the manipulation of Roark's original plan is tantamount to the construction of a physical lie, something that is an affront to all free, truth-loving people everywhere. Many high-level academics and most of the "mob" that is the general public want justice. In the end, they see the validity of Roark's position and acquit him. Then, as now, the general public does not wish to allow the truth to exist, but it continues to try and work its way to the surface.

Were Ms. Munroe's statements bitter? Yes. Were Ms. Munroe's statements true? If experience holds true, then yes. Should she have published them in the public eye? Yes.

Reformers from Michelle Rhee to that one lady at every school board meeting have ideas about how to fix public education. They have magic bullets galore, giant magazines of silver panaceas that rip through the windows and walls of our classrooms, destroying more than they create. The children get hurt, proper teaching gets sidelined, and generations are lost in the cross-fire. Then, these reformers turn to teachers with a pointed finger, wagging it in their faces until it accidentally fires which usually happens when one of them opens his or her mouth.

The awful truth is that people do not want to be confronted with the nasty human complexity of public schooling. The dialectic of freedom becomes a monologue of oppression, both of mind and spirit. Are there problem students? Yes. Do they affect classrooms and good teaching? Everyday. What Ms. Munroe is guilty of, if anything, is having the guts to exercise her rights as a person to pursue liberty on the behalf of others. She opened up a channel of communication between her classroom (a traditionally cloistered place) and the community.

So, let them charge after her. Let them wag their loaded fingers in her face. Let them do what they will. Ms. Munroe should stand tall, proud of the dialectic she has begun. As a citizen of these United States, regardless of the digital nature of the discourse, she has a right to free speech. She has that freedom and she has shown that she will utilize it. The message is in the medium: freedom comes from the writing, from the ubiquity and accessibility of the blog. Let us not forget, as teachers, that we have a voice just like Ms. Munroe. The best support we can offer her is the use of them.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Do WE Make a Difference? - Happiness as a Goal of Education

I apologize if this post smells of mothballs. I am utilizing some skills I had packed away.

ὅτε ἥμην νήπιος, ἐλάλουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐφρόνουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐλογιζόμην ὡς νήπιος· ὅτε γέγονα ἀνήρ, κατήργηκα τὰ τοῦ νηπίου.

The passage above is 1 Corinthians 13:11. One of my party tricks comes from the B.A. I have in Classical Studies, specifically Ancient Greek. Yes, I spent time earning that degree. The thing is, there is something liberating in translating a passage of Greek (says the ultimate Nerd). As I translated this one, I felt something familiar stir in me: a sense of discovery. Every time I translate a passage, I discover something unexpected. Consider my translation of the verse from Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth:

"When I was still a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I reasoned as a child: When I became a man, I nullified those childish things."

ἐφρόνουν means to care thoughtfully about something, hence understood. Meanwhile, ἐλογιζόμην means to reason out, like an argument. Both words represent thought of one kind or another, but both are present in the man as a child. Essentially, taken together, they equal the curiosity of the child, the sense of wonder children have innately wired to their perceptions of the world. As Willingham (2009) points out, people are very curious, but they are not naturally great thinkers. This is, of course, where schools come in, interceding and unintentionally severing the sense of wonder.

In a recent blog post (click the title of this post to read it), Jim Burke alludes to Hesse's Siddhartha, referencing how people must become their own teachers take "what wisdom will help us make sense of the world and find our place and purpose in that world." The heart of the post considers whether or not what teachers do makes a difference. People seek Truth about how to be happy, sending their nets into murkier and murkier waters only to come back with unrecognizable fish. The question of difference-making does revolve around whether or not the students we teach go on to successful and healthy lives, but I think happiness is perhaps something that is not readily added to that list. In large part, that is probably because nobody really knows what happiness , or "subjective well-being," is.

The verse from 1 Corinthians comes from the famous "Love" chapter; if anything makes people happy, it has to be love. Right? Well, coincidentally, the chapter contains another verse discussing how love helps us to "know as we are known." One of my thinking role models is Parker Palmer who wrote a book entitled To Know as We Are Known. One of the chapters is called "Knowing is Loving." OK. So Love, that which makes people happy, is knowing. Knowing what? Anything, says Palmer, as long as it is a knowledge that springs from love. Seems a little circular? Let me explain.

Quoting Dostoevsky, Palmer says that a knowledge that comes from love can be a "harsh and beautiful thing." He says that knowledge from love "may require us to change, even sacrifice, for the sake of what we know...If we want a knowledge that will rebind our broken world, we must reach for that deeper passion" (p. 9). He explains that "deeper passion" as "a bond of awesome responsibility as well as transforming joy; it will call us to involvement, mutuality, accountability" (p. 9).

So, I must whip a classroom full of thirty-five young minds into the fever pitch of a church revival over the greatness of Shakespeare. I can just see it now... Nope, just a pep rally.

In seriousness, Palmer does make a fantastic point when it comes to involvement, mutuality, and accountability; a point that Nel Noddings validates in Happiness and Education. She writes, "education for happiness must include education for unhappiness as well" (p. 36, emphasis from the original). Noddings makes the argument that, from the care theory perspective, students must understand both in order to make a happy life because happiness and suffering are always together. Essentially, without understanding what one has to offer, the other only provides a shadow of itself: hollow happiness or sham suffering.

I think she is right. As a rule, adolescents do not know what happiness is because they do not appreciate their unhappiness. Some may, given the family struggles stemming from the recession of recent years. Still others may not have ever felt true suffering and thus cannot understand true happiness. They find their great moment of joy in meaningless pursuits, chasing frivolity after frivolity, making fewer and fewer wise decisions. In essence, they never become "men" and throw away their childish understandings. When I was a child, I understood and reasoned as a child; anyone who spends time with children will tell you that childish understandings and reasoning are cute.

Childish reasoning is cute because it is innocent. They have "faith, hope, and love" in abundance: faith in their families, hope in their developing understanding of the future, and love for just about anything. Just the other day, my son, a fan of the Disney movie Cars, told me, unprompted, that the car he was holding was Lightning McQueen and that he loves him. At first, I was amazed and warmed by the sentiment; then, I felt embarrassed. Suddenly I had scene after scene of me as a child placing inordinate value on toys and video games flashing before my eyes. As a man, I was embarrassed by the things I loved as a child. I mean, who values a video game featuring pixelated Italian plumbers jumping on all sorts of creatures to save a princess. I certainly did; however, there are so many more things in my life that have so much more concrete value.

So, knowing is love. Love is harsh and beautiful, but also patient, kind. I think that is where we, the public school teachers, come in and make our great difference. We live out love and knowing through our faith and hope in our students. We incorporate Noddings's idea of educating for both happiness and suffering when we ask students to read books like Night and articles about modern-day genocides and then ask students what they mean. When not everyone in our AP and Honors classes gets an A, we teach about suffering and the value of hard work. We seek to understand knowing because we love 150+ kids from other peoples' homes unconditionally and we challenge them to love us back every day. That is the difference we make. That is the lesson on happiness we have to offer.

In Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, the title character offers the following about teaching:

"The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness. If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind."

That is what we as English teachers do best. That is what we should encourage all teachers to do best. We don't feed students knowledge like Grape Nuts, telling them they need more fiber so they should suck it up. We pick out a story, we guide them along its meandering pages, and we help them to see the reflection of themselves in the revelatory light of its ending. We are truly "offering something to children that should increase their lifelong happiness...Some things, even in schools, should be offered as gifts - no strings, no tests attached." We do this easily when we remember, as we get up way too early, as we drive hazily to our schools, as we look at our diminishing paychecks, as we feel the crush of more and more students, that we are rising to go to a building, to talk to kids, to teach them about literature, to talk about a book of all things, to help them see the potential for faith, hope, love, and happiness in each of their lives.

As we turn the corner into a new semester, or as we have turned the corner, I hope you'll keep this happiness in mind (it is a long way to Spring Break).

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Who's Schools? - Over-analysis and the Question of Who Makes the Decisions in Schools

This week is definitely dead week. So far, I've seen and heard a lot about nothing really special. Now, don't get me wrong, the woman who was killed by a neck massager is truly sad (the family is probably reeling), but I do not believe it warrants a 30 minute breakdown on the Fox News Channel.

But that is truly what US culture has become all about. I think that is why AP English Language and Composition has become such a big course in the past decade (including getting its own style of question). We are analysis junkies.

Critical thinking has become a part of our cultural raison d'etre (I apologize, I can't figure out accent marks in this format). I find it utterly confusing that a country that televises un-called for critical analyses of tragic appliance deaths should have such trouble educating and understanding its youth.

It has been a break from school, so I've been reading. So far, I've torn through The Hunger Games, devoured Dave Cullen's Columbine, browsed the first couple of chapters of The Geography of Bliss (I recommend this one highly), cruised through the first half of The Fountainhead, refreshed my Huck Finn, and am currently tromping through Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (also a fantastic read). For work, I'm reading Readicide ( and Kylene Beers's When Kids Can't Read: What Teachers Can Do (True Confession: I struggle with struggling readers). What Readicide and When Kinds Can't Read have taught me is that struggling readers don't struggle because they can't read, rather they struggle because they can't read anything under the text.

As a reader of text, whether it is composed of alphabetic symbols or visual images, I am looking for the big ideas so that I might engage in intellectual battle. Parker Palmer discusses big ideas in The Courage to Teach. Palmer says that we have forgotten how to center our classrooms on big ideas. The curriculum will be fine regardless of what we do to it because the big ideas cannot be submerged or destroyed. They are bigger than me, my department, my administration, my school system, Parker Palmer, Kylene Beers, Kelly Gallagher, and a partridge in a pear tree. They are not inviolate and pristine, rather they invite us to dismantle them and reassemble them; we are supposed to climb inside, get comfy, and find ourselves. In the end, that is what big ideas do. They show us the parts of ourselves we cannot physically see and challenge us to evaluate ourselves.

Struggling readers need to be challenged with the big ideas in the text. Why would I teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to a group of 21st century high school juniors? For one, if you think racism is dead, you must live in the wrong country. Huck's awakening to Jim's humanity is slow and occasionally heartbreaking. Consider the scene where Huck is appalled that Jim might get away and steal his own children away from their owner. I love milking this scene with my students because they can easily access it and it stands in such sharp contrast to the scene later on when Huck gives away his soul to save Jim. Did Twain blow the ending? Maybe. But I am with Francine Prose on this one: I cannot, I should not, think that my chronological standing gives me the right to shake my finger in the face of the great writers of the past. Those two scenes fromHuck Finn are rich with meaning and stylistically well-written. They are excellent teaching pieces from a novel that has parts that are, arguably, better off ignored. But I will not concede to Jane Smiley's view that Huck is somehow part of perpetuating Jim's (and other slaves') dehumanization. There is simply too much heart in that character to write off. Whether or not Twain chickened out in the end, there are overt statements and actions in Huck Finn that bespeak a certain striving toward equality for all men, one of the foundational big ideas of the US.

Since the junior-year English course is a survey of American literature, big ideas that are foundational in the US are extremely helpful. This idea, the push toward a more egalitarian country, is particularly rich. To briefly describe where I work: we are the fourth wealthiest county in the US, but the high school I work in has a fairly high percentage of free and reduced lunch. This division comes from all sort of interesting historical details, like we were the real terminal point of the North during the Civil War. There is a house in the county that served as a headquarters for the Union Army as it stared across the Rappahannock River at the Confederate Army. The community is a result of that forced blending of motley cultures: northern and southern, white, slave, and free black. The students bite so quickly when baited with this issue while some teachers, feeling unmotivated by a lack of salary and a lack of respect, don't even consider having these conversations; worse, they think there is no time to have these conversations before "the Test." Our discussions of progress are usually driven by SOL (Standards of Learning - VA's unfortunate acronym) or SAT scores. Our SOL results have risen considerably over the past decade; unfortunately, our SAT scores have remained stagnant. They are higher than the national average, but they haven't changed. Before people from states like New York and Connecticut get confused, I can say with the certainty of someone who has seen some of the other tests that the SOL is not even comparable with the Regent's exam or the Connecticut test (I can't remember the acronym right now). The SOL is the epitome of a "readicide" assessment (Gallagher, 2009). Big ideas are not alive in a redicide school, so finding them, capitalizing on them, and sharing the success they bring is huge.

Which brings me back to where I started. US culture as over-analysis. Everything has become a matter of quantitative breakdowns, of measurable outcomes, of a populist accountability that asks amateurs to judge the work of professionals based on the most superficial of metrics. I still love the statistic that shows that most people think education is in trouble but are still happy with their neighborhood schools. Talk about contradictory findings. Yet, since education became a golden goose for politicians, everyone has an opinion. Everyone, that is, except those who should.

Consider the reasons teachers leave the profession. The top three, according to Richard Ingersoll's analysis of the Schools and Staffing Survey and its supplement, the Teacher Follow-up Survey (SASS/TFS), are: family or personal reasons, pursuit of another career, or general dissatisfaction. Salaries are part of this dissatisfaction, but other reasons actually appeared more frequently: "student discipline problems; lack of support from the school administration; poor student motivation; and lack of teacher influence over schoolwide and classroom decision making" (Ingersoll & Smith, 2003). The last one is key. Teachers are tired of being judged, blamed, and condemned based on the decisions made by politicians or other equally detached persons. The frustration of other professional teachers, even in my own building, at the inability to use a pedagogy that engages and grows students, versus a pedgogy predicated on readicide, is palpable.

Thus, teachers feel torn; torn between the need to educate and the need to appear accountable; torn between big issues and ideas and narrowly defining what matters; torn between growing students as critical thinkers and letting them stagnate in the upscale public daycare centers our schools have become. Then, the filmakers of the world make documentaries on the heart-breaking state of education, then laud people who have not directly addressed the issues fueling our stammering system. Are schools in perfect shape? Nope. Are there teachers to blame for this? Probably. Yet, teachers are not being allowed to influence how policy decisions are made. Why? They don't know. Ask an administrator (well, to be fair, ask some administrators) at the school or central office level. Teachers are not employed to be consulted, they are employed to do as the system wishes. Unfortunately, I can't think of another profession (besides nursing) that demands such autonomy within such strict regulations (and even nurses can become nurse practitioners; what should teachers become?).

The over-analysis culture has hamstrung our public school systems from curriculum to staffing. Everyone has an opinion, but most do not have the expertise.

Maybe I am wrong. Public schools are supposed to be for the public. What do you think? I struggle with this question all the time and I am interested in hearing others' opinions.