Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Real Inspiration

Jaime Escalante, the inspirational mathematics teacher on whom the movie Stand and Deliver is based, died yesterday at the age of 79 years old.

Though Jaime lived in a totally different part of the country from me and taught a totally different subject matter, I could not help but be moved every time I watched Stand and Deliver. I think that this movie and Jaime's real-life story was so powerful because of his absolute faith and certainty that his students could achieve and would achieve if given the time and attention that true learning requires. I'm sure that the movie version of his story is dramatized, but the essence of his story is what's inspirational to me. We can never give up on our students. We cannot doubt their ability or their potential. We are not judges, we are teachers. Our students can learn, we need to teach. And reteach. This is what I take from this story. Thanks, Jaime Escalante, for sharing your life and your story!

Why I Love April: Every Day is a Poem

National Poetry month is finally here. Now, along with the rest of the world, I am able to celebrate the true miracle of life--A well written poem. I love, love, love poetry. I love it in all shapes and sizes and colors and forms. I love all sorts of poets and poems, from the classical to the revolutionary to the simple to the modern to the childish to the American to the otherworldly. It's all good.

One amazing benefit of having a month dedicated to poetry is that there are a number of folks who are willing to send you a poem every day of this month for nothing. All you need to do is provide your email address and you'll get a poem in your inbox every single day. It's brilliant.

Here are some services to think about taking advantage of during this month (and year round, in some cases):

Thirty Days/ Thirty Poets


The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor

Poem a Day from Poets.org

Poetry Daily

Poem-a-Day from Knopf Doubleday Publishing

Poem of the Day from the Poetry Foundation

Your Daily Poem

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Perfect Birthday Poem

Maybe this poem speaks louder to me than it normally would because today is my birthday, but I thought it fitting nevertheless. I look forward to reading the poems that I receive every day in my email inbox. Some days they are more relevant than on others, but they are always a pleasure to read and share. Here is the poem I received today, which is doubly perfect because it comes from a Maine author:



How true is that? I've gone from wishing I'd be old and mature to dreading going to bed after ten at night! Oh, how we change!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Censorship: Protection through Silence?

Of all the nonviolent crimes in the world, censorship is the worst. I understand that reading materials and artwork evoke strong emotions, some of which can disturb the reader/ viewer to the point of discomfort. I don't like being uncomfortable any more than the next person, but I do know that stepping out of my comfort zone can lead to productive, valuable thoughts and experiences.

I am not a parent, but every year I am in the position of selecting and purchasing thousands of dollars of reading materials for teens whom I care about deeply. I don't want to offend or hurt or damage my students through a reading experience. However, I don't want to prevent them from connecting with books and poems and plays that could open their mind to the realities that others experience around the world.

When I read that "Paint Me Like I Am", a collection of poems from the WriterCorps organization has been challenged by a concerned parent, I was saddened beyond belief. I can understand a parent not wanting their particular child to read a certain book, but to prevent others from reading a book is unconscionable. And, the irony of this case is that the poems that are being challenged by this parent are written by actual teens. These poems, which I have used for years in my own classroom, are written by teens who are dealing with real issues.

Apparently, this is not the first time that this particular collection of poems has come under fire. Last year, a principal from New Jersey cut an "offensive" poem out of the book and returned it to the school library shelves. The poem in question is written about an abusive stepfather.

The problem that the parent and the principal are not seeing is that abuse happens and that poems have the ability to make abused teens feel like they are not alone. Poetry can move students to action, to talk about their experiences, to find help, to talk. Censorship of poetry (and other art forms) does not protect, it takes away a potential connection for someone who needs it. And no one person has the right to decide to take that connection away from a person who needs or enjoys it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Poetry: It's More Than One Unit


When I first started teaching, poetry reading and writing was an "activity" that I saved for the end of the year. I would "do" a unit on poetry, which usually included a mixture of classic and modern poets and attempt to have students engage in these select poems. I would also use a multi-genre project to inspire students to write poems, providing specific poetic forms for them to imitate.

Now, poetry is a year-long fascination for me. I have come to see that poetry is all at once the easiest and most complex way to integrate a love of language and playfulness into the curriculum. It is no longer an afterthought for me; rather, it has become the inspiration for entire courses of study within my classroom.

Like most secondary education English teachers, I love National Poetry Month. Also, like most secondary education English teachers, I am overwhelmed by National Poetry Month. There is so much that I hope to do, hope to accomplish, wish I could try and do with my students during this one short month. Fortunately, there are all sorts of suggestions and poems and lessons available to teachers in my predicament. Unfortunately, these ideas are amazing and add to my want to "do" more during April, a month that includes a week-long vacation.

I've decided that I need to breathe deeply. I've incorporated more poetry than ever in my regular classroom teaching. Poetry is taught/ discussed/ shared/ written/ created at least once per week in my classroom now. Gone are the days when I teach a poetry unit to my students and call it "good". Poetry is a focal point, not a byline.

I plan to write a series of posts related to this topic for late March and throughout April. In these posts, I hope to share some of the resources (which I may or may not have time to use) in hopes that you and your colleagues may be inspired to incorporate poetry into your teaching or to add to existing poetry ideas/ lesson plans.

Here is my first item. I just discovered the Poetry Everywhere project, which is port of the Poetry Foundation. On this site, you can find videos narrated by poets reading their work. It's pretty darn incredible. Be sure to click the picture I've provided in this post. It's linked to an inspiring poem titled "Weighing In" by Rhina Espaillat. Check back for more throughout late March and all of April.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Controversy in Texas: My Case Against Textbooks


Lately, I've read a whole lot, more, and even more and about the controversial efforts of the Texas Board of Education to include a greater emphasis on the Christianity of our founding father and exclude "negative" words like capitalism, in favor of friendlier terms like "free enterprise system". I understand that people are aghast and upset about this issue because as Texas goes, so goes the nation. Well, this is true in terms of textbooks sales at least. The textbooks created for little Texans are bought and sold to many, many other states.

I'm going to use this issue as proof for my anti-textbook philosophy. I used a textbook in my first year of teaching and have not picked up one since. I find them to be a bit useless and off-putting. I think that textbooks are designed to meet the needs of a general population. I like to believe that my teaching and my lesson planning seeks to go beyond the usual. I think that even when textbooks are created with the best of intentions, censorship still exists. I vividly remember teaching a shortened version of Romeo and Juliet out of a textbook that first year of teaching. Of course, all of the parts that were excluded involved the "good stuff": The intimate scenes between the young lovers.

No matter how hard a textbook company tries to be unbiased and inclusive, there are materials and authors left out. I'd rather compile the poems, plays, excerpts, essays, and other such materials as I see fit. I don't need a textbook to lead my teaching. Plus, I worry that textbooks are sometimes used in place of a larger work, which alienates the reader from the reading experience. I've never curled up in bed with a great textbook. I don't envision my students becoming life-long readers because of a well-crafted textbook.

Plus, the internet allows for a huge variety of reading options. A stock collection of fifteen to twenty poems in an American Lit textbook is no longer the only resource available to students and teachers. Of course, pulling together a wide variety of materials and resources online takes time. We're used to this, though, right? Perhaps this Texas textbook scandal will finally make us all realize that the best way to teach is with authentic materials that are pulled together from a variety of sources. Maybe the days of a one-book curriculum are finally over. Outside of Texas, that is!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Using Documentaries To Discuss Social Issues with Teenagers

Lately, there have been a number of memorable and professional documentary series created for teenagers. I am a huge fan of documentaries and find them appealing for a number of reasons. My students, however, are less impressed with docs that I find fascinating. They are not as patient with the slow, PBS-style format that I have come to love (but probably would've found boring when I was a teen too).

Now, I'm making an assumption here that many of you are looking for ways to talk with your teen students about serious and controversial social issues. I know that it can be easier to gloss over issues of drug use, teen pregnancy, abuse, homelessness, suicide, immigration, and racism rather than face them head-on with students. Most of my philosophy of education is dedicated to talking about real issues with students. I feel that these conversations will help students to become more connected to their learning in my classroom and involved in the realities of their world. For me, I want to be real because the real world is out there and will not slow just because you happen to be only eighteen and a recent high school grad.

I know that many teachers/ adults/ people with brains are not fond of MTV. Because I have seen the debauchery and wanton recklessness of such series as Jersey Shore and The Real World, I can understand this sentiment. In the recent past, though, there have been a number of documentaries aired on MTV that could be of use in the classroom. Here are some that I've enjoyed and would use in the classroom:

True Life: This is a great series that has been on MTV for a long, long time. I've seen every single episode and have to admit that the featured topics have helped me to stay in touch with issues facing today's teens and twenty-somethings. From dealing with drug addiction to being deaf to hating your parents to eating disorders, this series covers it all. Don't have MTV? You can view full episodes directly from this site. You can share a clip or a full episode with students to inform your lesson plan. I know that this show has helped me to show students cultural events and experiences that my students may not otherwise be aware of. We live in a rural environment, but that does not mean that students don't need to be prepared for a global world when they graduate.

16 and Pregnant: This is a newer series from MTV. I am currently watching season two, which is a bit different from season one. Season two profiles one teen girl per week, devoting a full hour to their story. Season one showed five or six girls every week, giving each girl a portion of an hour. I do love seeing a full hour of each teen's pregnancy experience, but I felt a bit more connected to the teens with season one's format. I've not yet used this program in my teaching, but I plan to when we read The First Part Last by Angela Johnson. This young adult title follows the story of a teen boy who is raising his infant daughter without the baby's mother. It is a powerful story, but I feel that there are so many different types of teen pregnancy stories that it could use the help of 16 and Pregnant to highlight some of the other types of choices teen parents can make.

30 Days: This show is created and hosted by Morgan Spurlock, famous for his McDonald's documentary called Super Size Me, where he ate only cheeseburgers and fries for 30 days. The 30 Days television show is developed along the same lines, but with a variety of themes and topics. I've used the Life on an Indian Reservation episode in teaching Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Students loved it and made references back to it throughout the unit. It really helped to show students what a reservation looks like and it shows how Spurlock changes as a result of living on a reservation for a month. There are many other subjects that are explored in interesting ways through the three seasons of this series: Immigration, guns, animal rights, homosexuality, living on minimum wage, and others. You can find full episodes of this show for free on hulu.

Of course, there are other documentaries available online for free through PBS and other such reliable sources. I use those sources as well, but these options are also thoughtful and provocative. They just happen to be aimed at a slightly less mature audience!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Questions, Questions, Questions


I am in the middle of reading Jim Burke's new book What's the Big Idea?: Question-Driven Units to Motivate Reading, Writing, and Thinking. I've decided that I need to complete multiple posts about this book rather than just one. I don't want to read and review this text; I want to use it. Also, I'm taking my time in reading this one. I'm finding that there is no reason or way to rush through this book. The writing is too thoughtful, too right-on. Every chapter is filled with my notes, connections to units I teach, and it's full of huge exclamations. I totally recommend reading this book (even though I haven't finished it)!

Throughout this text, Burke talks about the importance of asking questions. He gives tons of ways to integrate question-driven units and lesson into the classroom, but it's really the philosophy of developing a questioning classroom that intrigues me. I have known for a long time that student choice helps to promote ownership and excitement in the learning process. It is now clear to me that students need to have some control over the development of the questions that will guide the selection of material--not just the materials themselves.


I recently spotted a cool spot on the New York Times website. It's called "6 Q's About the News". Here, students are encouraged to look at a daily photograph, read the corresponding article or information that goes with it, and answer six basic questions: who, what, when, where, why, how. I could see this becoming a regular feature in my classroom. I know that one of my goals in teaching students is for them to be curious and ask questions about the world around them and this idea would help to accomplish this goal. The photo and the article could be about anything. And, choosing the photo would allow students to have their own take on the way that they answer the six basic questions.

I will post more about this amazing book and the resources I'm finding that connect with it. I also hope to implement some of Burke's ideas into my teaching soon, so stay tuned!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Problem With Fiction

In the last few years, I've consistently heard of, read about, and experienced many situations where high school students have not been able to read and report out on nonfiction pieces that they're assigned or choose to read. This problem has become more and more interesting and pressing due to the current importance that is placed on standardized test scores. Our state (Maine) uses the SAT as the standardized test measurement for all high school juniors. There is no fiction on the SAT, yet the majority of our high school English curriculum is made up of fiction.

Rather than point the fingers at English teachers, who tend to harbor most of the 'blame' when our students are not achieving at reading, this issue seems to be one that can be shouldered most effectively by every high school teacher. Maybe I'm forgetting some subject, but it seems that all contents teach nonfiction in high school. Right? From art to math to science to social studies and world languages, nonfiction is the preferred genre. So, if this is the predominant source of reading material for high school students, why are they lacking the skills to read nonfiction?

My idea for writing this post came from a recent New York Times Idea of the Day segment titled "Schools Nonfiction Problem (True Story)". I was intrigued by this article because it aligned with what I've been hearing at staff meetings, in professional development sessions, and with what I've seen in my own classroom. I feel that this article brushes the surface of this problem but does not touch the underlying issue at hand: How do we best equip students to understand nonfiction materials, while allowing for choice and required readings in English courses?

Tom Kuntz, the article of this piece, refers to a Renaissance Learning study that concluded that only two of the top twenty reading choices of high school students were Night by Elie Wiesel and A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer. What's interesting to me is that on that same list are several fiction choices that are obviously assigned readings for English classrooms. Fahrenheit 451? The Great Gatsby? Of Mice and Men? These are not student selected readings for most students. These books were assigned for homework.

To me, this study showed more about what books were assigned for class reading and less about what students are actually ready for choice books. (I mention this because Kuntz picks on the Twilight phenomenon. Twilight, I'm sure, is not assigned reading for most, if any, high schooler.) In my classroom, I encourage choice reading during our Silent Sustained Reading time, which we have every class period. During this time, students may read whatever book they like, and I keep track of their accumulated book titles. Relatively few students choose nonfiction titles for SSR books, but those who do tend to be boys and they often choose adventure/ biography titles.

The real answer to this problem, in my opinion, is not by attacking students for their free reading options, but by including more nonfiction in the regular curriculum. I would not be the prolific reader I am today if not for all of the trashy, subversive fiction I read as a teen. Somewhere, somehow I also developed an interest in nonfiction. I feel like that interest and ability to process nonfiction stemmed from some of the fiction I was reading as well as a keen interest in the world. How do we cultivate curious and adventurous readers? It's great that kids are reading vampire stories. How do we get them to want to read about the history of vampire mythology? How do we get them to read about the controversy over whether or not Twilight is appropriate reading material in the New York Times?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

On My Wishlist: Magnetic Poetry

I had forgotten how fun magnetic poetry could be. I have played around with it in the past and knew that it existed, but it took a group of excited freshmen to remind me of the sheer thrill that some random words glued onto magnets can offer. Magnetic Poetry is great in possibilities, but some students have a difficult time limiting their word choice. They want the exact word that they're looking for. On the other hand, some students are frustrated because they just can't start. They have a hard time in coming up with a poem without any direction.

One solution for the latter is the Magnetic Poetry Game. It comes with thematic cards that require the writer to stick to a particular theme or mood. This focus allows students to use their imaginations as to how they're going to express the abstract word written on their card, but it gives them a place to start. This alleviates some of the pressure of coming up with a brilliant poem on one's own. Some students are self-conscious about their writing (or, in this case, arrangement of magnets) and have a hard time playing around and working with meaning and form. It seems that one of the best lessons for this type of student is that there is no right answer or correct usage of a word when it comes to Magnetic Poetry. I think that if this approach is used more often in the classroom, then students may feel more comfortable playing with words in their writing, whether it be verse or prose.

Play is important. Every kindergarten teacher knows this to be true. Somewhere along the line though, teachers and students start to think that play is silly and that rules are serious. I work hard to break the notion that words are stiff and boring and unmovable. Magnetic Poetry allows me to illustrate this point in my classroom. I started this lesson as an option for students. There was other work going on in the room, but if they chose, they could come and play the Magnetic Poetry Game. Two students volunteered right away. Soon, there were five or six students playing. They were laughing and joking and showing their poems around and helping one another to switch out words. It was awesome. Next time a student is stuck in his or her writing, I know that I can refer back to this experience as a reminder that poetry is not a right/ wrong or yes/ no enterprise.

Thanks to my practicum teacher for being hip and cool enough to bring this in for us! Now, I just need to buy it for my classroom.

Also on my wishlist is Magnetic Shakespeare. I'll talk about my thoughts on playing with Shakespeare's words in a later post.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Reading Rituals: All About Book Clubs

My recent reading of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows has prompted me to write this post. In this piece of historical fiction, you are invited into the world of post-WWII Guernsey, an island centered in the English Channel off the coasts of France and England. Frankly, before reading this novel, I'd never really thought about Guernsey. But, while reading this book and after finishing it, I'm wondering if I'll ever get the opportunity to visit this magical-seeming spot.

I initially bought this book as the March read for a local book club that I belong to. This book club is comprised of about eleven or twelve women who are currently teaching in our school district or who have retired from teaching in it. We've been "together" for about six years and have read a whole host of titles in that time. This book was not one that I proposed, as I thought it sounded a bit cheesy. However, it seemed like a bit of a fun read and also met the criteria for the Bibliophilic Book Challenge, so I ordered the book and read it over my February vacation.

As quaint as the title sounds, there is a whole lot of meat in this novel. I loved the structure of it--completely told in letters written back and forth between the main character, Juliet, and her friends and strangers. With this structure, I felt truly transported to another place in time, where "snail" mail was the only true way to communicate with people and waiting on letters in the mailbox meant more than watching your email inbox for a quick memo or something.

In this novel, Juliet is a writer during and after the Nazi occupation of Europe. She lives in a bombed-but-not-broken London, but is lucky enough to receive a letter from a man living on the island of Guernsey who's looking for a book. This connection leads to all sorts of other threads, but primarily serves to lead Juliet to discover the subject of her next book. I won't talk too much about the subject, but I will remind you that I now having a huge desire to visit Guernsey and meet all sorts of fictional characters who I've grown to love.

More than just satisfying a requirement for a challenge or for my book club, reading this book made me think about the many book clubs I belong to and have created. Hearing about all of the mismatched personalities who made up the roster of the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society made me think about the people I've met and the books I've read that I never would have been acquainted with if not for the book club. I truly don't think that I would've read this title had it not been the title for March 2010. What else would I not have read over the past six years?

A list of books I've loved but don't think I would've read if not for this book club:

A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell
Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Loving Frank: A Novel by Nancy Horan

These four titles are the first that come to mind. I'm sure that there are others that I've read and enjoyed only because they were assigned to me. Now, I belong to several book clubs, all with different themes. So, what is the lesson that I've learned in all book club-ery? I've learned that it's important to talk about books I'm reading. I understand more about plot and character when I have the opportunity to listen to others who've read the same book. I've learned that time spent reading a book that I don't necessarily like is not time wasted. I've also learned that it is okay to put down a book that I hate and not feel pressure to read it all the way through. I read 100 or so pages and if it's not for me, I still go to the meeting and listen and share, but there's no guilt!

More importantly, this one six-year-and-counting book club has bonded me to people whom I would have never met if not for the club. My life has been forever changed by these amazing women and I am excited every month when we all carve out a small space in our busy schedules to make time to chat about a book and whatever else happens to come up in conversation. Thanks, ladies!

I'll post about other book clubs and implications for classroom practice in future posts. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tweet Your Life in Eight Words



Teachers everywhere are honing in on the six word memoirs craze. I've written about my intentions to have my seniors include a six-word memoir in their "Senioritis" projects. The only problem with this fun, fresh assignment is that it will cease to be fun and exciting once students have all done it with all of their teachers. It's like the wordle craze that hit a couple of years ago. One teacher in our district sent out an email about the site and almost every teacher in my building had used it by the end of the week.

So, how's about a newer, fresher idea? While searching around Simon & Schuster's site, I found a section called MyLifeIn8Words. This section is linked to Twitter, and (as I'm writing this post) almost 200 twitterers are following this thread. Like the six-word memoir craze, this is not just for teens. Several tweets that I read where definitely written by adults. What I like about this collection is that there is instant collaboration through the twitter platform. Viewers and tweeters alike can instantly see others' tweets. So, it creates a bank of posts that will be added to for as long as this topic is a cool one.

What I'd like to see is a more daily, meditative sort of variation on this theme. Like, 7WordsWeekly. Hm. Maybe I'm on to something with that one. I like it because a memoir or a "My Life" in so many words seems like it needs to be super profound or telling. It also feels like you can't write a lot of memoirs. I'd like my students to develop a sort of picture of their life over the course of weeks and months. I can just imagine the variety of tweets they'd have! And the plethora of themes and moods. I like this better because it builds understanding of life and I can imagine using their collected tweets in a variety of ways. I guess that I'll just have to try this and get back to you!


Here are some of my favorites from a small section of tweets:

Monday, March 1, 2010

Go Paperless For Earth Day!


I am a huge proponent of the paperless movement. Gone are the days (hopefully) where I assign a worksheet or poster that will be handed in or hung up for about a week and then put in the trash or recycling bin. There are so many wonderful technologies where students can work creatively and keep their work forever--Not in their bedroom closet or on a refrigerator, but online on their blogs or wikis or another platform of their choosing.

As Earth Day approaches, it's great to hear that other teachers are making the commitment to go paperless, even if it's only for one day. There is so much waste in our profession; let's try and set an example for our students about using paper responsibly.

On Earth Day (April 22), please join myself, my students, and more than one hundred other educators around the country in going paperless. Take the pledge on googledocs and check back to see all of the awesome paperless creations my students make this Earth Day!
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