Monday, December 27, 2010

Everything That Could Go Wrong Didn't

On Christmas Eve my husband and I were involved in a minor accident on Interstate 84, one mile west of Glenns Ferry, Idaho. The driver of another automobile fell asleep, and his vehicle veered into the passanger side of our car as we were passing. I, too, was napping with my head against the window; I thought my husband had hit a wall.

We were lucky. Everything that could go wrong didn't. Timing of the wreck prevented the cars' wheels from locking. Rather than hitting while cruising down a steep hill, we collided on a relatively flat part of the road, which was bone dry, a rarity this winter. All in both vehicles wore seatbelts. The other driver readily admitted responsibility to the officer who investigated the accident. We had contemplated traveling with our dogs but decided at the last minute to leave them home.

The wreck has become a metaphor for me as I contemplate all that went right. Our classrooms are full of teachers and students doing the right things to ensure quality learning experiences. I wish those who want to blame and blame and blame would consider the right in education before decrying the wrong, before characterizing public education as one collosal wreck.

My car sustained a few thousand dollars in reparable damages. I'll get the body work done by an expert who knows his craft and from whom I had a door ding removed on another occasion. Reparing the damage done to things is much easier than fixing what the business model of education is doing to our schools will be.

When my husband and I were discussing our wreck later that evening, he said, "It's really a lucky thing we were there when that guy fell asleep. Otherwise he probably would have rolled his car and might have died." It's really a lucky thing for students from coast to coast to have dedicated teachers protecting them from everything that could go wrong but hasn't in education.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Good Grief, Grant: Wiggins's Immodest Proposal to "Rid the Curriculum of Fiction"

Grant Wiggins, creator of Backward Design (Understanding by Design) proposes that fiction be banned from the curriculum: "I think it is absurd that the bulk of reading making up the ELA curriculum involves fiction. There are few good reasons for retaining so much literature and many good reasons for dumping most of it." 

Wrong. There are many excellent reasons for keeping fiction at the core of ELA instruction. Writing about one of the earliest texts in the Western cannon, Charles Beye says this about the role of fiction in The Odyssey: "In using the themes of reality and unreality the poet is trying to bring out the paradox that fiction is often more truthful than reality, or that unreality can be a means to truth" (Ancient Epic Poetry 175).

Fast forward to the 21st century and these words from Canadian writer Yann Martel, who believes literature holds the key to global survival: "The empathetic imagination is the great solution. . . .Such an approach will not only make the universe more peaceful." Imaginative literature allows us to gauge the political, social, and economic realities of a global world. We find solutions to the world's problems in literature. 

Yet, Wiggins indicts reading fiction as a "leisure activity," noting that " for long stretches of time in our history, fiction-reading was the province of the leisure class - and most readers were women." So? "Leisure class" is code for "rich." I would think that Wiggins would celebrate the egalitarianism inherent in reading among the masses, which speaks to the success of public education. It's a bit amusing that Wiggins turns to texts from the 1800's to find fault with fiction. 

Wiggins blames teachers who don't assign nonfiction for the decline in boys' interest in reading. Although he has a point about " the kinds of fiction that boys love - namely, science fiction and war-themed sagas," he's wrong to claim that reading in ELA classes is skewed toward female preferences. In my senior classes, we read many texts that have more appeal for boys than for girls: Beowulf, Macbeth, Life of Pi, MAUS.

 Indeed, a classic cause/effect fallacy is at work in Wiggins laying the blame for boys not reading at the feet of female teachers, and he combines this with anecdotal evidence provided by his son. Many teachers increasingly offer reading choice to their students, and the Guys Read website devotes all book recommendations to the male gender. 

I agree that many fantastic nonfiction writers, such as John McPhee, Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Jay Gould, and Roger Angell can offer much depth and perspective to the ELA curriculum. I'll even add a few others to Wiggins's list: Sue Hubbell, Michael Lewis, and Bill Bryson. 

"So, let’s make a concerted effort to rid the curriculum of most fiction. At least half the population will thank you," writes Wiggins at the end of his post. Perhaps I should be grateful for the qualifier most, but I just can't help but notice the way Wiggins discounts the other half of the population in his immodest proposal. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

"Nothing to Hide and No Excuses: Video Evaluation to Raise Teacher Quality"

Susan Ohanian posted this video on Twitter this morning. It's a little over six minutes long but, at least for me, addresses many of the concerns teaches have about the current business model of education and the idea that we should be evaluated based on video recordings.

If you are not currently following Susan's blog and you are a teacher, I can't recommend it strongly enough. She really has her finger on the political pulse of all things related to politics and education.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Do Dual Enrollment Classes Live Up To Their Promise to Replicate College on High School Campuses?

When students enroll in dual enrollment courses, they enter a social contract that both tacitly and explicitly states they will complete college-level course work in a high school setting. Similarly, school districts and colleges enter a contractual agreement, promising students and their parents that in every important way, the student will experience college while enrolled in and physically attending high school. The contract benefits colleges because students become economically vested in the college offering the dual-enrollment courses, virtually ensuring the student will then enroll in that college or risk losing the dual-enrollment credits as well as the cost of those courses.

This all sounds fantastic, and in many places works well when the courses offered in high school are taught by individuals whose credentials would also allow them to teach college. Sadly, students, their parents, and the pubic may be purchasing the equivalent of educational swmap land when they enroll in dual-enrollment courses. High school isn't college, nor should college be high school. The environments alone just feel different because they are different.

However, the real problems arise when those individuals who teach dual-enrollment courses would never be hired to teach in the colleges that approved them for dual-enrollment employment in the first place. This is because many high school teachers lack advanced degrees required for college instructors. Why, then, did my local paper publish a story headlined "Funds raised for dual--enrollment program" November 20, 2010, in which the writer, John O'Connell, makes this false claim: Dual enrollment courses are "offered by high school teachers with advanced degrees that qualify them to teach at the collegiate level"?

I know for a fact that some dual-enrollment courses in my district are being taught by teachers without advanced degrees, either in education or in a specific subject.  Nor are these teachers close to earning an advanced degree that would qualify them to teach the course. Our neighbor state to the south mandates DE teachers have an MA in the specific course in which they teach.

"Parents think they're students are getting a real college experience from dual-enrollment classes, and they're just not," Stan Olson, the former superintendent of the Boise school district, told me during a conversation in October.

Proponents of DE classes contend that students enrolled in the classes are more likely to go on to college. I've seen the research, but I counter that this only makes sense since the DE students, by being enrolled in the classes, have college on their radar anyway. It's simply a fallicious cause/effect argument. I wonder how many students who have taken many DE classes struggle in the real college setting, not realizing the vast difference of campus life.
When the local paper published the article I referenced, I suggested to a building-level administrator that the district needs to insist on the printing of a correction since the claim is a bold faced lie. I have not seen a correction yet. To ensure all students and pareents know exactly who is teaching DE courses, I suggest that just as college professors include their credentials on the syllabus students receive, dual-enrollment teachers should be required to inform students and parents of their specific credentials. Until then caveat emptor, parents and students.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"Who is still standing after everything that could go wrong does?"

A student wrote that question in a recent Ning discussion about her personal hero. The thread is part of a Pearson-sponsored Ning collaboration among my senior students and seniors at a school in California. In writing about their personal heroes, many of these students have become my heroes as they have written about the math teacher who offered encouragement, children who have persevered through the challenge of their mothers' drug abuse, parents serving in Iraq, siblings and friends who give companionship, athletes such as the skier Tom Wallisch, grandparents who mentor through memories, and many others

One of my favorite posts comes from a female student who writes about her father's heroic qualities: "He has taught to blow a goose call, catch a fish, and even skin a coyote." I love this reminder about how important time is to young people.

Still another student reminds us that it's the small things that often go unnoticed that define heroism:

I believe that my hero would be the stranger on the road willing to tow your car in a rain storm or the figure that help you when you were lost in a foreign place. I truly think that the random meeting of a stranger who shows virtues and dignity is worthy of being called a hero....When you help the unfamiliar face in the poorest condition, then you have earnestly reached in the bottom of your heart to pull out the little inch of kindness that person may need.

Each day in classrooms across the country teachers at every grade level reach into their hearts and earnestly offer kindness, inspiration, and hope to students. They do this, arguably, in the most difficult, disrespectful political climate our profession has known. Some days it's difficult to find our idealism. On those days, I think about my student heroes and the things they do and the words they write that embody random heroic acts. Here's one that could be from any student to any teacher; I dedicate it to those teachers who may need a hero today:

Thank you for teaching me how to write out my feelings. It has helped a lot, so has reading. You got me hooked on reading. I don't know if you will read this or not, but thank you to when you do, and I pray for you. I don't have a hero, I hope one day I will.

When I'm having difficulty finding a hero, I look no further than the desks in my room. In the world of education, I'm confident that it's the teacher and the student heroes who will remain "standing after everything that could go wrong does."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Beyond These Four Walls: PD in Cyberspace

After reading my friend Mardie's blog post (September 25, 2010) "Professional Development--My Way" on Mardie's Muse, I've been inspired to think about the contrasts between mandated professional development in my district and the personal professional development I enjoy on-line. In her eloquent post, Mardie writes about the professional literature she's read lately and the ways folks like Jim Burke, Mary Borg, Donald H. Graves, Michael Smith and Jeff Wilhelm have been teaching her to teach better with their fantastic books.

I live in a Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde world of professional development. Were it not for cyberspace, I'd be languishing in PD stasis. Simply, the professional development I find most meaningful exists beyond the four walls of my building, beyond the geographic boundary of my district.

Like Mardi, my virtual life has led me to professional literature. Since joining EC in January of 2009, I have read many amazing books: Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction by Maja Wilson, Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones by Tom Newkirk, The Book Whisperer by Donnalyn Miller, Reading Ladders by Teri Lessene, What's the Big Idea by Jim Burke, Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action by Harvey Daniels and Stephanie Harvey, Readicide by Kelly Gallagher, Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements by Michael Smith and Jeff Wilhelm, The Socially Networked Classroom by William Kist, Digital Writing Workshop by Troy Hicks, and Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle. Each of these books has given me the opportunity to participate in an on-line discussion of ideas and methods via the EC book clubs. And I haven't even listed the books I've read because I discovered them via recommendations from EC members.

In contrast to my mandated PLC, Twitter also rocks my PD world. When I arrived home Monday afternoon, I joined #engchat on Twitter where the discussion about Arts Integration in English classes led me to Elizabeth Peterson's blog "What is True Arts Integration?" and to a fantastic list of drama resources. Today's #engchat has prompted me to create a lesson on tone / mood and character using crayons as symbolic representations of these literary concepts, and during the chat, I gleaned a fantastic lesson plan for John Milton's Paradise Lost. Teachers on Twitter comprise an important segment of my Professional Learning Community as we engage in the common goal of evolving ourselves into more effective teachers. Afterwards, I discovered I had two new followers. I find myself engaged, wowed, and heard on #engchat as I meet with and learn from virtual colleagues.

The verbs circumventevade and avoid characterize my building PLC. Despite a mandate to meet Monday afternoon, reinforced via an email from my principal, we in the English department went our separate ways. I took the time to work on the library display of teachers' favorite and most influential books I'm creating and to communicate with a local author about an upcoming visit to our building. By the time I left the building, my hall was empty, and I did not stay late yesterday. This scenario isn't unique. Typically, we write common assessments during our PLC time. Translation: We write multiple choice test questions. This does nothing to improve my teaching. My sense is that many view this time as an extension of the planning period. Unfortunately, we lose a great deal of student contact time with our weekly early release.

When my district decided to mandate its version of PLCs, the well of meaningful collaboration dried up. I miss the days of shared soup during the cold, gray winter days. I long to collaborate in meaningful ways with my building colleagues as we "tag team" students who teacher shop only to discover we're all running interference together and requiring students to complete comparable literature and writing tasks. Some of us still share resources, but we don't talk much about our practice. We expend our energy on the tests. Always the tests.

Things don't improve when a speaker comes to town. Last Monday, October 11, secondary teachers in my district were required to attend a presentation about alternative assessments and omitting zeros as a way to improve test cores. During his talk, Myron Dueck suggested teachers not post Fs but that students receive an "incomplete" for the entire course when they miss work. Dueck's contention that "zeros allow students to treat "the course components as optional" makes sense to me, but the problem with his proposal is that we are forbidden from posting an "incomplete" at the end of the trimester. To implement Dueck's plan would require a "complete paradigm shift," as one of my colleagues notes. I've attended many of these top-down, mandated presentations that ask teachers to do something in direct conflict with district mandates.

A functional, professional learning community and / or PD arises organically, much like a grass-roots political movement. This explains why teachers value EC, Twitter chat, and other on-line forums that give them "voice and choice" in their professional learning. For a PLC to work as what Jean Lave and Ettiene Wenger call "communities of practice," several criteria must be met: First, there must exist a common concern or passion for something we do and a desire to do it better. Simply sharing a common domain (e.g. being employed in the same building or district) is not enough to create a community of practice. Secondly, the community must commit to nurturing relationships via discussions and showing support for members engaging in common interests and activities. Third, mutual practice marks a community of practice as members share resources, ideas, stories, and tools. Members of a community of practice fill in knowledge gaps, solve problems, recycle assets, and share discourse. Synergy marks a community of practice.

This past July a colleague from another school commented: "Our district has not learned how to do PLCs." Thus, I will continue to embrace the wall-less cyber world of Twitter, EC, etc. I will learn about educational trends and important issues as I follow Dr. Stephen Krashen, Diane Ravitch, Ellen Hopkins, Terri Lessene, et al. on Twitter. Beyond the four walls of my classroom, I'll form my own version of a PLC.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

My First ARC--I Am Nuchu--Raises Questions about Who Should Tell Native American Stories

These days I'm pretty excited about a novel I just read but that won't be published until the end of November. In my wildest dreams I never expected I would procure an advanced reader's copy--ARC in publishing parlance--of a novel, and I didn't have to ask for an educator's discount. Brenda Stanley, the author of I Am Nuchu, gave it to me free! Even better, I really like the book and say so in my goodreads review: 

When his parents divorce, seventeen-year-old Cal must leave his home in Spokane and move to his mother's childhood home "The Fort" on the Ute reservation in southern Utah. The move brings additional struggles for the teen whose college plans include earning a basketball scholarship. In time Cal journeys toward self-discovery and maturity as he investigates the mysterious death of his aunt and his mother's secret past, a past that entwines Cal in the lives of his racist enemies.

Teens will identify with Cal's struggles and delight in his love of sport and romantic involvements. This is a book that offers young adults life lessons in an entertaining story that addresses traditional themes: the search for identity, finding one's place in the world, learning to forgive, dealing with loss. 

I teach in a school that is a feeder for members of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe, some of whom live on the nearby Fort Hall Indian Reservation. I believe Native American voices deserve a place in our curriculum, one that acknowledges contemporary perspectives and issues that concern Native American students. Too often in American literature we end at the beginning by reading a few creation stories; if we have time, we may include Chief Joseph's famous speech, "I Will Fight No More Forever."

Frequently, contemporary Native American stories include sensitive issues and language. I have no problem with this but understand when others do. I doubt language will be an issue for I Am Nuchu. However, the question of whether or not it's okay for a white person to tell the story of a Native American teen will be, but as I write in my review, I don't think it should be. 

Although the author is not Native American, something that may be an issue for some readers, she offers a respectful portrayal of the red-rock country of Utah and its Indian heritage. Moreover, Stanley avoids posing as an expert on sacred rituals but acknowledges the importance of place and cultural identity by bringing stereotypes forward and addressing them through the characters' conversations about what our society deems important. 

I found this book surprisingly engrossing and am eager to share Cal's, his friends', and his family's stories with the teens I know. 

When I find a book that will appeal to young adults and when that book validates the concerns my Native American students have and acknowledges the problems they face, I'm not going to quibble about who wrote it. I'm just happy somebody did. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Tis the Good Reader That Makes the Good Book": How Can English Teachers Dislike/Hate Any Book?

A friend over on the English Companion Ning reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson's remarks in an email yesterday resulting from a discussion on that site: "So what books do you DISLIKE?" I have not joined in that conversation for several reasons but mainly because I can't think of any books I completely dislike or hate, as a number of posters have remarked about titles they have named.

My goal is to be a good reader in the Emersonian sense: "Tis the good reader that makes the good book; a good head cannot read amiss; in every book he finds passages which seem confidences or asides hidden from all else and unmistakably meant for his ear." Over the years I've purposed to find something valuable in every book I read. As an English teacher this is what I expect from students. I tell students to ask: "What can this book offer me? and How can I find something valuable in this book?" I also remind students that as twenty-first Century readers we might not initially comprehend the context in which the author writes but that doesn't mean we can't find value in the text.

In his fantastic little book How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Forester offers this to those who really desire to get something from the books they read: "Most professional students of literature learn to take in the foreground detail while seeing what the detail reveals. Like the symbolic imagination, this is a function of being able to distance oneself from the story, to look beyond the purely affective level of plot, drama, characters. Experience has proved to them that life and books fall into similar patterns...Literature is full of patterns, and your reading experience will be much more rewarding when you can step back from the work,  even while you're reading it, and look for those patterns" (xvi).

I suspect some of the teachers with lists of books they dislike would benefit from reading Forester's little instruction book. As readers our students approach literature on the affective level, expecting the book to fulfill all their needs. But for teachers to do so makes me wonder whether we've taken reader response theory a bit too far or perhaps don't really understand it to begin with.

As one trained in the New Criticism approach to reading texts, I've gratefully embraced the development of literary theories that offer additional lenses through which I can see texts, particularly New Historicism and Gender theories. These lenses have helped me distance myself, as Forester advises, so that I can see patterns, whether the pattern is a quest or something else.

I love Daniel Pennac's "The Rights of the Reader." We have many, and I encourage students to practice these rights. I recognize that at a given moment in time, I may not be feeling a particular book, the student may not have the skills or maturity necessary for certain books, and a book that doesn't work for me now is one I can return to later. I acknowledge the English teacher's right to say some books just don't work from me as well as others. Today, however, I'm thinking about the rights of the book. Here are a few I suggest books claim:

1. The right to be respected regardless of personal taste, particularly by those professionals granted the privilege of protecting literacy.
2. The right to exist in the moment of publication without altering for the next century.
3. The right to speak to a specific audience rather than to the masses.
4. The right to get it (particularly gender) right in the mind of the author while recognizing it may be wrong in the mind of the reader.

One of the maligned authors in the EC discussion offers this from one of his vilified novels: "We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales; we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature,  in which men and women who once lived  and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection which sound to us like Sanskrit or Chocktaw." (80)

I've long thought of William Faulkner's words in this passage from Absalom, Absalom! as a description of stories and their relevance to our lives. This Sunday morning they read more like a commentary on a profession who has forgotten Emerson's admonition: "Tis the good reader that makes the good book." Is it any wonder, then, that so many English teachers find no value in some of the most important works in our literary cannon?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

If It Works: Break It

Watching Seth Godin's talk "This Is Broken" on TED, I can't help but think about public education in the year 2010, the year of the broken bubble test, broken budgets, and broken class size. Much in education needs fixing.

Godin says he came up with the idea for "This Is Broken" at a cab stand with a long line despite a huge number of cabs awaiting fares. I'm particularly fond of Godin's criteria for judging whether or not something is broken: "If I think it's broken, it's broken." To wit, Godin identifies broken types:

7 Kinds of Broken
Not my job
Selfish jerks
The world changed
I didn't know
I'm not a fish
Broken on purpose

My favorite broken things include the dog prescription warning against operating a motorized vehicle and alcohol consumption (Not My Job) and the Jimmy Choo shoes that don't function well as shoes because they are designed for a different purpose (Broken On Purpose).

Two kinds of broken seem particularly relevant to teachers: The world changed and I'm not a fish. The social efficiency model of education designed for the Industrial era no longer works for 21st Century students, yet the architects of NCLB and the business interests that make money hocking standardized tests and curriculum have wrested control of public education from educators. Consequently, what little money remains in the public coffers will first pay for the tests and programs before funding the real classroom needs.

To illustrate the "I'm not a fish" type of broken as it pertains to education, I think about my district's new grade book program. We were told it's easy to use, but it certainly isn't easy to see. I need a magnifying glass to supplement my glasses, and we have been assured that there is no way to increase the font size. Last year the district moved from semesters to trimesters, just as our state neighbor to the south and other districts around the country have abandoned the system. I can live with the broken trimester system but prefer semesters, which give teachers more opportunity to get to know students and which provide a more cohesive curriculum by avoiding a twelve-week time lapse from one tri to the next, as happens for many students. If summer diminishes student skills; one can logically conclude that a three month lapse does the same.

Some times I think we operate based on the "If it works, break it" paradigm just to give some folks something to do. Ironically, the ability to embed the video here on Blogger is broken, so you'll need to use the link. As Godin notes, those who create something should first use it because while they might think it works fine, we all have the right to say, "If I think it's broken, it's broken."

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Idaho Makes History Interactive: My Granddaughter's Future

When I was in elementary school I regularly watched "You Are There," a history show that purported to take the viewer back in time to experience important historical moments firsthand. Walter Cronkite narrated the show, and I loved imagining myself aiding runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad and participating in the suffrage movement.

Progressive doesn't usually describe education in Idaho; that may be changing. With the adoption of an interactive textbook by the Idaho State Department of Education, my granddaughter (a first grader) will enter the world of history in ways I could only dream of doing. An article in The Idaho Statesman describes The 43rd Star: Idaho and Its People (developed by Cybervision Text) as a green, paperless text utilizing interactive technologies that function as an audio book, a large-print text for visually impaired students, and a music director--a professional singer teaches students the Idaho State song, something I don't know after 21 years living here. The electronic textbook includes music and animation to engage students and gives immediate feedback on assignments. There's even a search function that enables students to easily find key passages.

As excited as I am about the prospect of an interactive history text in the hands of my granddaughter, I have concerns and questions: Will an audio version undermine traditional reading? Will such computerized learning continue to promote the deskilling of teaching? Will students screech boredom after the uniqueness of the new methodology wears off?

The Cybettext website offers a preview of the textbook's interactive features. I do like the map that shows how Idaho, over time, acquired its current geographic shape. The addition of the state song and an image showing the primary document is a nice touch, although the song itself will bore even those with little musicality. It's a bit disconcerting to hear a Southerner reading Idaho history with a Southern accent.

To its credit, Cybertext also offers the book in a traditional format and has priced both the electronic and the paper versions the same, although I don't know the price.

As Idaho enters the world of virtual textbooks, will history come to life for students and transport them to the world of the free-running Appaloosa of Idaho's past, or will computerized textbooks eventually suffer the fate of "You Are There"? The series was cancelled in the 1970's.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

My Love/Hate Relationship with the Union

Unions are as American an organization as any. I still remember learning in eighth grade that Samuel Gompers founded the first union, that unions have done much to improve the working conditions for those in the labor force, and that the union functions as a democratic organization representing the voices of many. Yet for many years I've felt conflicted about my NEA (National Education Association) membership.

Although my undergrad education program emphasized the importance of teachers joining professional organizations--with special emphasis placed on union membership--the NEA I discovered in the early 1980's resembled an organization whose positions conflicted with many of my own. In those days, NEA articulated stances far removed from the teaching I was doing in my classroom. I joined anyway, and except for a couple of years, have maintained my membership. I've even attended delegate assembly several times in one state where I worked, feebly served as the association president in another, and am a building rep in my current district.

It's what I learned at my first building rep meeting of the year that raise my ire today. My union dues have increased, this despite my five percent pay cut. I find this increase in fees unconscionable in the current economic environment. How do I ask the seventeen new members to fork over $695.00 in union dues?

Negotiating salaries and securing due process for teachers have been the two most important functions I admire of my union, but I wish the union advocated for stronger academic preparedness among teachers. I wish the union insisted that all secondary teachers have at least a BS in their subject areas rather than endorsements that can require no more than a dozen credits. I wish the union would insist that teachers earn grad credits that count toward advanced degrees for recertification rather than in-service and workshop credits so many rely on these days.

Without unions female teachers might still be required to quit when pregnant, might still be expected to wear dresses to work. Without unions we probably wouldn't have a prep period, would still be serving lunch and bus duty. Without unions our working conditions would probably be very different than they are now.

I don't foresee myself giving up my union membership, but I do wish union leadership at the national level would take a good long look in the proverbial mirror and see the reflection of an organization that has done much good but has also strayed down paths that diminish our profession by encouraging the mediocre when it should be the leader in rigorous academic teacher preparation.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Looking Good on [Digital] Paper: a.k.a. Blowing Smoke Up the Wazoo

"Have you ever met someone who looks so good on paper but when you meet them they just don't live up to your expectations?" Dr. Derryberry, my debate coach, asked me this question during my freshman year of college. I recall the circumstances precisely; we were standing in the field house outside his office and looking at a bulletin board. I swallowed hard. "Are you talking about me?" I had reason to suspect Dr. D. was less than impressed with me as a policy debater because I was the only female on the squad and all the senior males taunted me with chants of "Dr. D. doesn't like girl debaters." Fortunately, Dr. D. assured me that I was not the subject of his inquiry, a notion he reinforced by increasing my scholarship for the spring semester.

I've pondered my chat with Dr. D. over the years as I've strove to live up to the image I project on paper, that is, on my résumé or CV, and I think about what impression I'll make when I'm selected for a prestigious NEH institute and when I was asked to participate on a panel for the Folger Shakespeare Library at the NCTE convention in Orlando. After all, when applying for jobs, grants, etc. we try to put our best foot forward.

My husband describes people who lack the credentials to support the image they attempt to project as "blowing smoke up the wazoo." Only he uses a different word than wazoo! "Boy she really knows how to blow smoke..." he'll chime when we discuss certain events.

These days I'm occupied by my digital image as well, the one I project on screen when posting and chatting online. Recently, Google CEO Eric Schmidt suggested that young folks whose screen images may be a bit tainted from prior posts change their names. That's right. With the click of a mouse, we can all reboot our image and erase our digitally tainted pasts. An article in The Wall Street Journal describes Schmidt's position: "every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends' social media sites." 

I can't help but wonder what John Proctor, who refused to nail his confession of witchcraft to the church door, would think. I can hear him now: "Because it is my name." The mantra may soon be chanted by those choosing a name change in our postmodern world where even one's name and identity quickly erode into nothingness.

Is changing one's image by changing one's name the same as rewriting one's character? Literally, attempting to obliterate one's past with a name change changes nothing. The image in the mirror remains the same; the past life stays etched in one's memory. A person with no discernible past life leaves an impression on the one asking, "Have you ever met someone who looks like nothing on paper?"

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Friends, Good Friends, and Such Good Friends: What Does It Mean to "Friend" Someone In an On-Line Community?

     "Good friends. Kind sirs." My college debate coach, Dr. Bob Derryberry, greeted his progeny with these words at the beginning of class and casual encounters. When I learned of Dr. D's death earlier this summer, I reminisced about his many colloquial expressions, especially the idea of being good and kind and a friend.

     On the English Companion Ning, I've been helping review member applications and posting welcoming comments to new members' walls. Today I received a "friend request" from a new ECN member, along with the comment, "I'm not really sure what it means to friend someone here." Hum, I thought, "What does it mean to be an on-line friend, especially to those with whom I've never had a face-to-face conversation?"
      In the Nicomachean Ethics, Book 9, Aristotle's treatise on friendship, the philosopher tells us friendship "is desirable in all circumstances" (pt. 11). Our on-line friendships, if with virtuous men and women, will make us better teachers, in the case of EC friends. For through our EC friendships and activities our goal is  "improving each other; for from each other [friends] take the mould of the characteristics they approve," says Aristotle (pt. 9). This is true on-line, too. For example anger seeps through posts, spawning angry comments; conversely, kindness has the same impact.  As my children were growing up, I often implored them to choose friends who bring out the best in them. They didn't always do this, unfortunately. I think about this standard in terms of on-line friendships as well.

     Aristotle also describes the pleasure we experience when we see our friends. Indeed, sometimes I choose to enter a conversation--whether on EC, twitter, or Facebook-- based on the other participants while avoiding some conversations for the same reason. Good friends, says Aristotle, feel pain when their friends experience pain and experience joy as a byproduct of their friends' joy. I know this reality on-line, too. Earlier this summer I received several encouraging emails and friend requests from kindly virtual colleagues who sensed I needed "a friend." Since that time, I've enjoyed a growing collegiality with several folks. Really, is a virtual friend any different than an old-fashioned pen pal?

     Choosing whom to friend on-line, I think, requires the same care as choosing our face-to-face friends. Among the over 20,000 EC Ningers, all are my colleagues, some are and will become my friends, others my good friends, and a select few such good friends that the cyber walls fall away as our friendships evolve. Good friends. Kind Sirs, I look forward to seeing you on the Ning, and may we all heed Dr. Derryberry's admonition to "act seemingly."

Friday, August 20, 2010

My Favorite Student I Never Had In Class

     Last night I had dinner with a graduate of HHS who will travel to the Big Apple in less than a week and begin his drama studies at New York University. Jacob never took a class from me, but we became acquainted during his sophomore year anyway. We spent much time together after school chatting about writing and literature. He's my favorite student I never had in class.

     "Do you remember how we met," Jake asked while we awaited our meals? I paused for a minute, trying to recall the exact moment. "I was doing an assignment for C's class. I was interviewing MD, and you were in her room. Whenever I asked her a question about teaching, you had something to add. So the interview really became an interview with you both." Wouldn't you know it. We met when once again I was chiming in with my two cents worth.

     Jake started coming to my room after school to chat about books and writing. "Who's your favorite author? What's your favorite book? What do you like about Hawthorne's style?"  During his junior year, Jake traveled to another school for AP Language and Composition, so he'd bring his papers to me for extra help after school.

    "Do you still have your Mustang?" Jake wanted to know between bites of salmon. "I remember when you got that car. You tied it into the American Dream when you were reading The Great Gatsby and took your class out to the parking lot to see it." I'd forgotten about that, although I can say driving a Mustang ups my stock with high school students.

     During the summer of 2008, Jake was serving a mission for his church in Alexandria, Virginia, and I was spending a month at the Folger Shakespeare Library's Teaching Shakespeare Institute, so I took the Metro to Alexandria one evening and treated Jake and his mission partner to Tia food. It was a bit incongruous to have dinner with two LDS missionaries in white shirts, ties, and name plates, but I'm glad I could bring a little bit of home to the East coast for Jake.

     "You definitely get some of the credit for my acceptance into NYU," Jake told me during dinner last night. Responding to the confused look on my face, Jake explained: "You spent so much time with me talking about writing and literature, reading my papers. You have such enthusiasm for teaching, and you really helped me a lot." Then to bring me down from the pedestal, Jake asked, "Do you remember the time some kid came into your room and put a shake down on a student's desk and you chased him down the hall in a skirt and high heels? People still talk about that!" Somehow I've managed to forget that graceful teaching moment!

     After dinner I gave Jake a ride home and promised to visit him in New York if he promised to score some theater tickets for me. My favorite student I never had in class gave me a hug, and as I drove away in my dream car, I thought about the many students teachers never teach in class and the influence we and they have on one another's lives. We teach even when we're not teaching. Sometimes it's these students, the ones who don't hear our lectures or sit in the desks in our classrooms, who learn the most from us and  who remember us as the favorite teacher from whom they never had a class.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Reining in Grammar with Social Networking

Originally published @ old blog site.

At times I see a gulf between formal grammar instruction English teachers provide and the grammar lessons parents want their children to receive. Early in my career, grammar lessons resembled the isolated study I experienced in junior high. These days grammar talk in my classroom looks more like my Facebook profile. Last week I posted a status update about my evolution into twitter chat:

Twitter chat is turning out to be a great way to connect w/ English teachers to discuss mutual concerns via #engchat. Tonight Twitter chat between parents and teachers #ptchat. This is awesome! If you aren’t on Twitter, you should be.

This status update prompted the following conversation about parental concerns over grammar instruction:

S.H: I wish every English teacher would spend some time discussing mis-placed apostrophes and incorrect homophones this school year. I am tired of seeing newspaper headlines and articles with sentences like “Coach reigns in practice when it’s hot.”

It makes me wonder who reigns during cool weather, if not the coach, assuming that “it’s” is meant to be the contraction of “it is” and is referring to the weather.

Spell check has made us lazy. It is NOT a replacement for knowing English, and it does not catch incorrect use of possessives and homophones.

L. B-K: I’m not an English teacher, but I understood “it’s” as a contraction of “it is” and referring to the weather. If the journalist was referring to the coach being hot, isn’t it correct to use either the word “he’s” or “she’s”, or even “they’re”? I am just curious…not trying to present an argument.

E.E.T: ‎”Coach reins in practice when it’s hot” is correct. Rain, reign, rein.” It’s” (contraction for “it is” and “its” possessive pronoun….

English is a living language, so I predict we’ll see one form of “its/it’s” within the next 25 years as “text speak” continues to influence spelling. Look for other changes, too, such as the continued death of the subjunctive mood as in L’s example, “If the journalist was…” The subjunctive reads, “If the journalist were….” This expresses a condition contrary to fact, but I see many English teachers who no longer use it. It’s on its way out, so is the rule against split infinitives, as in “to boldly go” vs. “to go boldly.” The latter is correct.

S. H: Star Trek ruined us on split infinitives!

What is the status of dangling prepositions?

L. B.-K: rein…right! I didn’t catch that one, being I was more interested in the “correct” use of the pronoun “it’s”, which I know was referring to the weather.
I suppose I read S’s comment wrong? I thought she was stating that “it’s” was misused.
I still would like to know if the coach was being referred to being hot, instead of the weather, what pronoun would you use?

E.E.T: L, use “it’s” since the antecedent is clearly the weather.

S: The rule against ending a sentence w/ a preposition is ignored by most. Purists such as myself try to avoid ending sentences w/ prepositions. I suppose this is from having Mrs. Rucker for eighth grade English!

I think students care about using grammar correctly, especially in formal writing. These days I use “Personal Style Manuals” and conferencing as the primary way of raising student awareness of grammar issues. I’m thinking about ways to evolve grammar instruction via social networking. If Facebook as grammar book works for parents, perhaps it will for their children!

Click here for a brief pro/con perspective on the value of social networking in the classroom.