Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Future of Reading -New York Times

The Future of Reading
Students Get New Assignment: Pick Books You Like

This is an interesting New York Times article about some teachers and districts letting kids read whatever they like in English classes in order to encourage them to read more and like what they read. I understand why teachers would do this, however, I wonder if we should abandon the great books of our history and culture so easily.

Perhaps we simply need to do a better job of making the case to our students for these books so they actually want to read them. Maybe the failure is ours, not theirs.

Teacher man: a memoir - Google Books

Teacher man: a memoir - Google Books

I can't put this book down by the late Frank McCourt. A line struck me as I'm preparing for the first day of school on Tuesday. He writes of teaching, "If you don't learn to love it, you'll wriggle in a corner of hell." Love it folks!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Trying Something New

In an attempt to find new and better ways for my students to build their skills in English and a desire to make my class more relevant, exciting and consistent with our modern world, I'm considering trying something new this year.

While reading Howard Gardner's analysis of Google's practice of allowing its employees to spend one day a week working on their own innovative project in Five Minds for the Future (see the bookshelf at the bottom of this blog) this summer, I thought, why wouldn't this work with students?

I'm thinking of calling it "Innovation Friday," Here's the idea:

  • Students create an ambitious project of their own design that requires them to show they have achieved or grown in specific standards, personal goals, and class goals.

  • Each project proposal must be approved by the teacher.

  • Every Friday, students spend the entire period working on their project, while dedicating a certain amount of time outside of class to it as well

  • We do three of these projects throughout the year. The first is individual. The second is chosen and completed by a small group. The third project is an entire class effort.

  • The results or outcomes of the projects must be posted online for community viewing and comment.

The reason for doing the individual, small group, and class version would be to better simulate the different kinds of experiences they will have in the future.

My fear in doing something like this is giving up control and that some students just won't get it, procrastinate, and turn in low quality work. I think I could mitigate this by raising the bar on their projects when I meet with them about their proposals, having them turn in progress reports, developing a grading rubric with the students, and meeting with individual students throughout the process.

I will also have to give something up if I'm dedicating Fridays to this activity, but I think overall it will add more variety, excitement, creativity and learning about personal responsibility to my class.

Any suggestions? Am I crazy?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Do Teachers Need Education Degrees? - Room for Debate Blog -

Do Teachers Need Education Degrees? - Room for Debate Blog -

These editorials from the New York Times are fascinating and illustrate what a fluid and strange profession teaching is. There seems to be no true consensus in our society (although many examples of forced consensus) about what children should be learning, how they should learn it, how we should measure it, to say the least about how teachers should be trained and what we should be doing.

Over the long run, I hope this blog will help teachers (and myself) navigate this incredible ambiguity.

As far as the specific debate above, I would say teachers do need education degrees, but most teacher credentialing programs should be changed to more of an apprenticeship model, with less time in the college lecture setting and more time in the schools they will be working in, practicing their craft in the classroom. At least in California where I am credentialed, it seems like much of the course content has to do with political mandates rather than serious explorations of the pedagogy and philosophy of teaching.

I'm curious to hear what other teachers think about the credentialing process and their experience.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

By Sarah Fine -- Why I Left Teaching Behind -

Thanks to great teacher Christopher Greenslate for finding this piece:

By Sarah Fine -- Why I Left Teaching Behind -

Ms. Fine reports feeling "undervalued" as a teacher by the administration in her inner city school, friends, and American society. It seems the charter school she worked for sought to improve education without much input from the teachers. This hierarchical style of educational reform seems destined to fail.

More and more research seems to imply that children with less educated parents need more physical time in school to close the achievement gap. Some charter schools have figured this out and shown powerful results. The problem arises when schools, like Sarah Fine's, try to extend the school day and school year without increasing teacher compensation, reducing teacher pay to around 10$ an hour. No wonder charter schools have such a high rate of turnover.

The Obama administration has embraced (see the New Yorker abstract) the charter school model as practiced by the KIPP and Green Dot schools. I only hope they don't try to make these changes on the cheap, forcing more good teachers out of the profession. In this sense, perhaps Ms. Fine shows insight in her feelings about the value American society puts on education, learning, and teaching.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Day to Day Success in Teaching

Remember that as a teacher you’re in it for the long run whether it’s the class, the school year or your career. This is a dangerous profession in that you can set yourself up for burn-out or simply hating what you do. Depression or feelings of impotence can insinuate their way into your spirit if you don't guard against them.

Let’s say you have a class where you start off okay, then things start to drift. Students may seem to lose motivation, you have some discipline problems or just a sense that strong progress has halted in your classroom. You begin to feel like you just want to get through that class every day and you’re not happy to see them.

To deal with these situations you must reinvigorate yourself every morning and not think of the big picture. Just think about TODAY. How am I going to make today a great day? Given everything else that’s gone on, my failures, their failures, what can I do today to make this class work? How do I have to change? If you go into class each morning and work with the focus on that one class or student immediately in front of you, rather than get overwhelmed by the work load, the apathy, the long term goals, or the long term trajectory of a student, you will see you can turn the tide in a class.

There will always be students who come in with negative attitudes who don’t want to learn. As a teacher, you have to win them over. Convince them not only with your arguments and reason, but with your pure exuberance and belief in yourself, subject and life. The cockeyed optimist is the successful teacher at any level. You have to believe in the face of cynicism, class after class, year after year, student after student and day by day.

If you can’t generate that enthusiasm within yourself and students perhaps it is a sign this profession isn’t for you. It’s simply tough being a cynical person, and then going in to confront the cynicism of your students. You have to be an optimist to teach well (See The Passionate Teacher on the bookshelf at the bottom of the page).

Another piece of thriving day to day is avoiding burn-out. There’s an enormous amount of work to do outside of the classroom just to stay afloat, even if you do control what you’re grading. You have bureaucratic work, collaboration, meetings with students and parents, e-mails, etc. Set schedules so you can create a rhythm for yourself.

For example, Mondays and Tuesdays might be days where you grade and organize student work. Wednesdays and Thursdays you have a set time for some exercise after school or doing something that recharges you. I would recommend that you do these recharging activities before you go home to avoid collapsing into exhaustion when you get there.

Stick to your schedule. People will ask you to meet about this or that, but you can’t let your physical and mental health consistently rank second if you are going to survive for the long term. These are not luxury goods. They are essential. We have a responsibility to model physical and emotional health to our students.

You could be the most intelligent, intellectual person in the world, but if you’re unhealthy, you are sending the wrong message to your students about what it means to be an adult. They will sense your lack of health and want to check-out of the world and model of adult life you are offering, which makes them much less likely to learn from you. Take care of yourself!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


English Rubric Blog adapted from Michelle Mullen

This is a controversial topic. In my classroom I like students to be able to do things. My assessments are skill based and ongoing. I assess kids during class discussions, essays, projects and presentations because I want to see what students can do, not remember.

I think many teachers get too wrapped up in grading and grades. We think of grades traditionally, as a way to give students a final evaluation and everything they do is just a piece of that. This shouldn’t be the model at all, each assessment should be formative, not something used simply as a part of a grade. We should use the assessment to help that student learn. Too often teachers, parents and students think of it all as a part of a final grade. Most parents will ask their children, "How are your grades?" fifty to one over "What did you learn how to do today?"

My grading is also not point-based. I use holistic rubrics for major projects and the overall grade. This sometimes gives me a lot of headaches, not because it is a difficult system, but because students and parents are trained to see everything through the lens of points rather than what their work shows about their learning. The rubrics attempt to put the focus on learning. Click here for the English Rubric I use (created by Michelle Mullen slightly adapted by me). Click here for the AVID Rubric I use (created with Blaze Newman).

The effect of a point-based system is that it teaches students and parents to simply play the game of gathering points rather than focus on their learning. With the holistic rubric, students have to fit a profile rather than gather points. Students then have to make an argument for their final grade. There are some things that are recorded as point values, but these do not make up the complete grade.

I do feel like I’m swimming against the current in this because most teachers are still using the traditional systems and I have to educate students and parents about my system, which does take time. However, I have seen many teachers spend so much of their time on accounting in their point systems, getting so bogged down that they don’t even have time to think about their teaching. Many teachers do the same thing year after year simply because they are spending all the time when they’re not teaching a class on grading. Don’t fall into this trap. You must have some reflective and creative time dedicated to improving your practice.

Part of being a healthy professional is giving yourself time to reflect. Many teachers will say they don’t have time or their classes are too big. I can’t reflect. I just have to tread water. If this is the case you are doing a disservice to yourself, your students and your profession.

Find ways to cut back on your grading. Don’t grade everything. Do peer grading. If you don’t have time to really assess students and you feel like you are just accounting, accounting and accounting, there is something wrong with your grading system. Step back from what you’re doing and ask yourself: Do I really need to count every piece of work? What can I let go of? Can you know through less time consuming means what students have and haven’t learned? Don’t let the accounting suck away at your time for actually helping your students.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

As Classrooms Go Digital, Textbooks May Become History -

As Classrooms Go Digital, Textbooks May Become History - "In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History
Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

In California, high school interns try out digital 'flexbooks' created by the CK-12 Foundation.

Published: August 8, 2009

At Empire High School in Vail, Ariz., students use computers provided by the school to get their lessons, do their homework and hear podcasts of their teachers’ science lectures.
Down the road, at Cienega High School, students who own laptops can register for “digital sections” of several English, history and science classes. And throughout the district, a Beyond Textbooks initiative encourages teachers to create — and share — lessons that incorporate their own PowerPoint presentations, along with videos and research materials they find by sifting through reliable Internet sites.
Textbooks have not gone the way of the scroll yet, but many educators say that it will not be long before they are replaced by digital versions — or supplanted altogether by lessons assembled from the wealth of free courseware, educational games, videos and projects on the Web."

This may be unsettling to many teachers, but we are on the verge of a major upheaval in education over the next five to ten years. I think we need to engage these changes in positive ways rather than simply fight against or deny them. I hope this blog will become a place to discuss, understand and share thoughts about these types of changes. Hit the link at the top for the full article.

Friday, August 7, 2009


You can always do more to help a student. You can always give them another assignment and more feedback. You can always find one kid in your class that needs more guidance. As you probably know, to be successful in teaching you must put in enormous amounts of preparation time and be accessible to students, however, you must also decide where to draw the line. Where should you stop?

In other professions, sales for example, the more work you do the more money you may get, so you can draw that line when you think you have enough. Teachers work by a very different equation. Many of us simply want to help kids. Kids, however, always could use more help whether it's a conference, feedback on an essay, or further practice of skills. So when we finally do turn our attention to other aspects of our lives, by choice or necessity, guilt sets in.

I can remember days where I’ve worked 16 hours plus, or weeks where I’ve done that and then when I finally stopped, I still felt guilty for stopping. Of course, ultimately everyone must figure out where to draw the line for themselves, but if you’re not drawing that line correctly or participating in martyrdom, eventually, on some level, you will be unhealthy, unbalanced and unhappy.

We must always keep in mind we are emissaries to the adult world or role models for our kids. If a teacher is always stressed or frazzled, and I know we’ve all had these teachers, that teacher provides a poor example of what it is to be a healthy adult. Kids pay much more attention to who you are and what you do than what you say (See Teach like Your Hair's on Fire on the bookshelf below).

Teachers often become surrogate parents, psychologists and social workers for their kids. You can and must do this at times to be an effective teacher, but I would recommend that you give yourself time, and plan for these necessities. Don’t let it eat up your whole life.

Planning can ameliorate guilt more than any other tool. Sit down and write out realistic plans for your days and weeks. Be the architect of your life (See Built to Last on bookshelf below). If you plan out those times and make your life organized in this way and say, this is the time I’m going to work, this is the time I’m going to play, exercise, write, or be with friends or family, you can leave work without guilt, knowing you are making sane and thoughtful choices. Perhaps this sounds rigid, but if you aren’t rigid and you have a big heart, as many teachers do, then all those little responsibilities are going to eat away at you. It took me years to learn this and in many ways, I'm still learning it.

Some people do take everything on. The kids love them and maybe they earn awards in the short term, but they may not be able to sustain those efforts in the long run of their lives and careers. What are you going to do to yourself if you keep neglecting your life and your own needs? Your married life? Your family? Your children? Do you want to look back at a destroyed marriage and kids that grow up without you, or a very stressed out you? Or do you want to be happy and be yourself?

If you are overwhelmed by work and just trying to keep up all the time, you may not be growing as a person or professional. How will you come up with those new lessons or innovations in your classroom if you are buried under paperwork and the personal problems of students? Create space for yourself to think, be happy and rise above! If you don’t, it can be devastating to your personality, your sense of hope.

Another way of decreasing guilt is to look at teaching through an existentialist lens. Just be the teacher. Shut down any feelings of worry or guilt before you’re in the classroom and after. Trust that when the time is on for you to “go,” you’re going to do it. Get into the flow of your work. Define yourself this way. Build off of the strong experiences that work, reflect on what doesn’t work and do it day after day. Trust in yourself, keep improving, and you will become a good teacher and healthy role model.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Loving your Subject

My great former principal, Fran Fenical, used to say that if you were interviewing a teacher and they only mentioned how much they loved their subject the whole time and they never mentioned kids, then she knew that was the wrong person to hire. I agree, however, if a teacher only loves kids and not his or her subject they will also be lacking something. You must be passionate about your subject too and find ways to enthusiastically communicate that passion to your students. Sometimes they won’t get it right away, but if you can come with that enthusiasm and that passion day after day for whatever it is you teach, then your kids will eventually want to learn from you.

Learning can’t thrive as a grim responsibility. You have to find the joy and excitement in it. Sometimes the testing and standards regime get this wrong when certain schools, in an effort ensure that scores raise, will enforce programs in which each teacher follows the same rote lessons every day. I believe the “life is in the details.” In teaching, excitement is in the details with the beautiful perception of a subject that is by definition individualistic. You can’t get that from a generalized teaching system or materials.

Think about the writing in textbooks. There is no "voice" or style. We lose students when we present them with these lifeless materials. See Neil Postman's The End of Education on my bookshelf at the bottom of this page for more on this. This is where the standardized testing, teaching and learning movement falls down.

I can understand why someone looking at it from the top might think everyone should be learning the same things and there is some truth to that, but I don’t believe we should or can be learning the same things in the same way. It seems like what we learn and teach and how we learn and teach are becoming more and more conflated recently.

You may not love all parts of your subject, but you need to use those parts you are passionate about to drive your teaching and bring in the rest of it. If you don’t have that, you will just be going through the motions, and teaching and learning won't thrive that way.

Education is about transcendence. Students are going into something in which they will come out greater than their former selves. They are transcending their former selves. That’s scary for many kids. They’re fearful of stepping out and getting judged. If there is no enthusiasm involved, then they won’t take risks.

If you’re working with struggling students, many of them have already learned by high school to hate school. Classes where teachers and students are just going through the motions and not seeing the beauty and the joy of learning itself cause this apathy. With that, the students lose their own passion and reason for being in school. Many feel that it’s just this dismal chore that their parents yell at them about and it becomes a completely negative experience.

I like to start class on the first day with the most exciting things about my subject. Many teachers start off with rules and the syllabus, handouts, grading blah, blah, blah...and kids are already bored. Then you’re supposed to grab their attention later? You’ve already lost them. Start with the best you have. Make them think deeply about something that matters. This sets the tone in the class. It’s not about grim responsibility or threats; they will see the main point is the learning and the intrinsic good in learning itself, not that it will get you a job or help you sound smart at parties, but the pure joy of understanding the world in a new way.

Methodology will only take you so far. Infuse your methodology with passion and flexibility, then embrace your own idiosyncrasies and those of your students. This will add life to to your classroom.