Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Square Things Filled with Stuff: A Slice of Life Challenge #SOL15

Slice of Life happens every Tuesday and is sponsored by the fine teachers at the Two Writing Teachers blog. Check out this week's slices here. 

This summer the wing of my building, will undergo some much needed renovations. While the major work will happen in other rooms, in the restrooms, and on the hall ceiling, my room will also see action. 

The past couple of weeks I've been consumed with packing up my room because I and my colleagues have been promised "a dusty mess" that will coat anything we leave out. As English teachers, packing is no small undertaking. 

Our NHS advisors have enlisted the assistance of students who need service hours to pack the book room. One student told me he thought this would be an easy afternoon. That was a couple of weeks ago. 

I have two student aides helping me, but as the teacher in my department with the longest tenure in my room, and as the only one with a classroom library, I have a bigger job. 

In the past, even without this major packing task, chairs and other items often get relocated to other rooms. To avoid that problem this year, I suggested that we color-code our labels, much as luggage tags get color-coded based on deck occupancy when one takes a cruise. I had a student aide make the labels and distribute them to my colleagues. 

Below are some of my boxes. 

I'm also attempting to move the boxes to the back of the room: 


Over fifty years ago when the building was new, there was a courtyard with rose bushes outside my room. The roses have not been present since I began at HHS in the fall of 1989, but the space still exists. There is a window in my room that looks out onto the old courtyard. It will be walled in this summer in an attempt to address a mold problem. That has necessitated emptying the wardrobe next to the window and packing the stuff in it, too. 
We also have a sprinkler system with lines that will be replaced this summer, but the biggest improvement will be in the restroom facilities, which have not had a major renovation since the school opened. Faculty and student restroom facilities will get gutted and completely redone. Additionally, both the boys' and girls' restrooms will get an additional stall. 
While I'm thrilled my wing is getting a much-needed face-lift, I can think of many activities I prefer to putting stuff in square things, and I'm not looking forward to unpacking boxes in August!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

#SOL: Artful Rhetoric and Student Response to Literature #engchat #teaching


Last night I joined #engchat for a discussion of two essential questions: 

  • Why does art matter?
  • How can integrating the arts expand learning experiences for students?
It's been a while since I've participated in #engchat. During the chat the discussion turned toward the ways some students doubt their ability to create because they don't fit the common definition of an artist. 

Students don't need to be artists to think artistically and to create what I call ARTFUL RHETORIC. 

For example, today I graded a student reading response to Winger by Andrew Smith. We've been discussing how readers know characters in literature. I teach them the common ways we learn about characters: 
  • What a character says.
  • What a character does.
  • What other characters say about a character.
  • What the narrator says about a character.
  • How a character looks, the character's level of education, the character's age. 
Students have been creating BODY BIOGRAPHIES during our study of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST and will compose an essay in which they analyze the character as their final exam this Thursday. 

Throughout the trimester, as students have read their independent novels, I've asked them to concentrate on character and to write in their writing notebooks about character. One option student had for their final "character analysis" on independent reading is to create a CHARACTER SCRAPBOOK. 

Kyrstin, a voracious reader, chose WINGER by Andrew Smith for her project. Here are images from her project: 



To create her scrapbook, Kyrstin needed to think like character. She needed to make rhetorical choices based on the ones the character would make. She needed to get into the mind of the character so that she understands the character's point of view. Thinking this way, arguably, requires rhetorical sophistication and analytical skills. 

Importantly, artful thinking also requires students to develop empathy for characters. 

As one of the #engchat hosts said, too often teachers see English as not inherently defined as or by art. I'd add that some discount art as a lesser form of rhetoric when we should be thinking more about how art is rhetorical and an important part of student engagement with literature and traditional written analysis. 

On our last day together, I'll share with my graduating seniors advice Neil Gainman voiced in Make Good Art: 

The one thing you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. The moment that you feel that just possibly you are walking down the street naked...that's the moment you may be starting to get it right.

And if they find their voices and stories and visions in art, I'll say, "enjoy the view and make good art. Life is a museum. We are the curators."


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"We Could Have Done More." It's What Teachers Think When Kids Fail in Life and in School

The  Slice of Life Story Challenge is sponsored each Tuesday by the good folks at Two Writing Teachers who support that community as a labor of love. 

Teachers naturally wonder, "What more could I have done? when we see a student fail in life or in school. We are caregivers. We want to save our students. We hope for health and happiness for each one.

Thus, when tragedy strikes, we desire to comfort the grieving. We look for words that uplift and aide the  grieving parents and friends. We never imagine our words will be used  as a way to denigrate and blame our school or our student body. We just want to give comfort, to say something that will lesson the grief. Especially the grief of mothers and fathers, of brothers and sisters. 

Four years ago I attended a memorial service for a student who committed suicide in January, 2011. . In one of my earliest blog posts on this site I shared my own grief about Ryan's tragic death and what having him as a student meant to me: Good Night Sweet Prince. It was a sad time for all Ryan's friends, teachers, acquaintances.

Ryan's mom continues to mourn, as one would expect. She has a mission to give Ryan's life and legacy meaning. To that end, she champions the cause of students who suffer from bullying. She champions LGBTQ rights. She has tirelessly lobbied our political leaders for policy change. I admire her mission and her love of kids, especially those suffering. 

In doing so, however, the words of one well-meaning individual have been used to denigrate and malign an entire school, an entire faculty, an entire student body--even years after Ryan's suicide, even years after Ryan's school days. Ryan had not attended our school for over two years when he committed suicide. Ours was not his only high school. 

At his memorial service, an administrator said to Ryan's mom: "Highland High School failed your son. We could have done more for him...."

Comforting words to a grieving mom, words meant to ease her pain, words meant to salve her soul, words since interpreted as an admission of guilt, words shared with the state legislature, with audiences across multiple states and in various venues. These words have taken on the metaphorical life of a smoking gun, as though the one who spoke them was confessing to a crime implicating over twelve hundred other people, none of whom have been called as witnesses in their own defense.

When I see the words "We could have done more" used to castigate an entire school, I get upset. FERPA laws prohibit teachers from sharing personal information about students; even the things Ryan told me about his life shortly before his death--long after he left HHS--remain locked in my brain. Consequently, the telling of his story remains flat and one-dimensional. And even though FERPA may no longer apply after a student's death, it still does for those students still living.

Ryan's time at Highland was not idyllic. Our school has the same problems one finds in many schools, but Ryan had friends and teachers who loved him and who demonstrated that care and love in numerous ways. Unfortunately, Ryan also experienced bullying, although I never witnessed it.

Our student government and administration work tirelessly to create a safe environment for our student body. Our district has a mission of providing a safe learning environment.

Now, Ryan's mom is contemplating writing a book, a book telling Ryan's story and her story, a book for the purpose of showing others that they are not alone, that even years later they may experience residual effects from bullying in school and bad experiences in life, a book that calls for more mental health care for the suffering. As recently as Monday morning, I was reminded that she still recalls those well-meaning words: "We could have done more...We failed your son." We do not share the same interpretation of these words. 

Years after Ryan's suicide,"We could have done more" now stand as a reminder that reticence is preferable to uttering comforting words that might return to haunt the one offering comfort.

As the school year draws to a close, I contemplate what more I could have and can do for struggling students. Yet as I reminisce about Ryan, I also want to ask, "What more would you have had me do?"



Tuesday, April 21, 2015

#SOL Story: My Husband Read a Book--Almost!


Slice of Life is sponsored by Two Writing Teachers. Check out other slices here: 

My husband is a self-professed non-reader--in the English teacher, book lover, bibliophile sense of the word reader. 

In the nineteen years we've known each other, he has read only a few books. A couple of years ago his doctor recommend he read Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. I ordered the book, and Ken is still reading it--periodically and reluctantly. It is taking him a very long time to read Bryson's Short History. I've tried to get Ken to abandon the book because I know he's not enjoying it. He has repeatedly refused. 

When I left for Europe last month, I handed Ken a copy of The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.  Ken has one chapter left in the book as I write this. I'm sure he'll finish reading this evening. 


Throughout his reading journey, Ken has adopted some of my reading habits: He stops to tell me something interesting, to share his thoughts about the story, to comment on important moments in history that matter to him. 

Last night I asked Ken what about the book appeals to him:

"The underdog story. There's one guy who was kicked out of his home when he was 15 and his father remarried. Specifically, it's about one member and how they work together as a team. It's interesting because you see how hard a couple of these kids work to get their education. One guy is living in a room at the YMCA and barely has enough money to pay for his education. Some have summer jobs and get paid very little for working very hard." 

When a reporter bumped a hole in the boat with his head right before the Olympic trials, Ken was outraged. I'll not repeat his string of expletives, but his response was as passionate as any I've heard. 

Ken will reach the end of The Boys in the Boat today, and even though he thinks of himself as a non-reader, I know there's a reader of professional literature, trade publications, reports, newspapers, etc. living inside my intelligent, perfectionist husband; he just needs to find the right reading journeys that lead him to the finish line. 

*The next book I have for Ken to read is Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I think he's ready for this epic reading journey.