Thursday, October 20, 2016

Boston Book Festival '16

Nothing like the Boston Book Festival to make a gal want to blog again. Those of you who really know me understand that this is one of my favorite days of the year. I told my students it's like Nerd Christmas. Last year, I went to the ticketed kickoff event and saw the queen herself, Margaret Atwood. There's no way this year could top that, but it was still a fabulous day. J came too, but we ended up going to completely different events. It was great at the end of the day (and briefly during lunch as I scarfed down a hot dog) to chat about what we had learned. It was a fun way to share an experience but in different ways.

First, I went to the YA Keynote with Kami Garcia, one of the writers of the Beautiful Creatures books. I'd read the first one, and must admit I didn't think the writing was all that good, but I was still curious about what she had to say. Plus, since I teach young adults, I figure it's a good idea to go to at least one talk related to the kinds of books they read. When asked how she felt about the movie made out of the aforementioned book, Garcia said she liked how they brought the scenery of the world together and loved the young male actor, but had some issues with the movie. However, she was glad it brought her book a wider audience, and remarked, "Complaining about your movie is like a first world problem."

Garcia talked about how the writing process is really tough for her. She suffers from anxiety and has ADD, so she has a lot of self doubt nagging at her all the time. But she works hard to push through it, reminding herself that if you get something down on paper, no matter how bad it is, you can work on fixing it. You just have to start somewhere. She also said that though some people talk about having a muse, she does not: "There's no magical being that comes and sprinkles fairy dust on you and then you're Neil Gaiman." Sigh, if only.

Speaking of Neil Gaiman, the next session I went to, "Turning Classics Inside Out," featured a protege of his, Kat Howard, as well as Alison Case and Elizabeth Nunez. Case's book was a reworking of Wuthering Heights, meaning I will never, ever read it--WH is one of my least favorite pieces of literature of all time. Nunez's book updates and replants Shakespeare's King Lear in the Caribbean. And Howard's book Roses and Rot, which I bought and am currently in the midst of, reworks fairy tales and the Scottish ballad of Tam Lin (which I'd been unfamiliar with). It's pretty interesting so far. Case and Nunez talked about this idea that authors plant seeds of ideas in their books, then leave space for the audience to jump in and try to fill that space with their own ideas/interpretations/answers. Nunez said that Shakespeare was excellent at doing this, which is why his work has lasted. The authors also talked about how they worked to make their books accessible to people who had never read the source texts. Though Howard said she also added "Easter eggs" for people who are familiar with Tam Lin, so there's that added layer for them.

The third session was one I was really curious about: "Injustice, Incarceration, Invisibility," featuring Eddie Glaude, Jr., Elizabeth Hinton, Shaka Senghor, and Mychal Denzel Smith. They discussed the issue of mass incarceration of black men and other related issues. We obviously have a huge incarceration issue in the country, with more incarcerated people than anywhere else in the world, so  was interested in their take on this. The audience, while mixed, did have a white majority, but Glaude reminded us that he refuses to sweet talk white people about these issues. I've seen a lot of pieces lately on the kind of thing he was talking about--it doesn't matter if these issues make white people uncomfortable--they aren't the ones suffering from a racist system. Smith talked about how policing and incarceration are made to enforce systems of inequality. Hinton brought up that we need to empower people to solve the problems in their own communities and police those communities, so that we're not just going into other people's communities and doing all of that for them. Some of the issues of incarceration that they discussed are that when people are in prison, the dehumanization leads to their talents being largely ignored. There is so much untapped potential languishing away or being punished. Also, I don't remember who brought it up, but one of the authors/scholars argued that by not allowing people who've been convicted of felonies to vote, black people are further disenfranchised--and no, it's not a coincidence that very white states like Vermont DO allow them to vote. Plus, these are people who are still required to pay taxes, even though they have no say in how those taxes are spent.

One of them said that President Obama is a sign of progress that has made us think that there's been more progress that we've actually experienced. His being president is a singular achievement--it doesn't solve everything for black people. Glaude said that whenever we advance in this society, we are also held back by a reassertion of what he called "the value gap"--basically, the belief that white people matter more than others. For example, though Lincoln did so much for black people in this country, he also still believed that black people were inferior, and this kept him from being the kind of person his idea of democracy required. I think this value gap certainly applies to Obama's presidency. Yes, it's progress that he holds the highest office in the country. But America still has a huge race problem, as Black Lives Matter and other groups have been working hard to remind us. And it is no coincidence that the "birther" controversy happened with the first black president. Some people do not want to accept that he could be a real American and run our country. This is similar to why the Republican-led Congress has been more obstinate than perhaps any Congress preceding it--there are still some congresspeople who buck at the idea of answering to a black man. Thus, our progress has exposed just how far we still have to go.

A point I was very pleased about was Smith's assertion that we need intersectionality--it's not enough to just fight against one system of oppression; it's much more effective to work to end different ones at the same time. Racism intersects with patriarchy, transphobia, etc. The authors also talked about the need to let go of your privilege if that privilege means people are suffering on the other side of it.

When it came time for questions, I went up--I was very nervous, especially since we were in huge, packed Trinity Church. Basically, I said, "I'm a high school teacher, and I'm lucky to teach a diverse group of kids. Recently, when we were talking about fear, one of my students, who's a young black man, said that he's afraid of being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people. We address race to some extent in my classroom, but I'm curious if you have any suggestions about how I can better address that young man's concerns and issues of race in a way that will be both engaging and meaningful to both my black and white students." In response, they talked about the need to honor students' experiences and believing them (which I certainly do). They also talked about needing to be willing to make people uncomfortable--it's important to talk about the brutality and the actual realities people face. They said to face it head-on, and don't sugarcoat.

The final talk also dealt with current societal issues: "Is This Any Way to Elect a President?" While I have the names written down, I could only see a couple of the people on the stage from my spot in the very last row to the right, so I don't actually know who said what. They offered some insight into this election cycle. Some of their thoughts:

  • Part of the reason it has taken so much longer for the US to have/consider having a female leader than many other countries is our president is also Commander-in-Chief. We're used to associating women with pacifism, and many people aren't comfortable with a woman leading our armed forces.
  • Republicans have misunderstood their base: many of those people are not ideological conservatives
  • Part of what motivates Trump is wanting to prove people wrong. For example, he thought he'd get big donations from other rich people, but didn't. This added to the chip on his shoulder. So then he said he wouldn't be taking donations, and it made him popular...
  • They brought up something about President Obama similar to the previous session: said his election showed us how much racial anxiety our country still has. People have hated it when Obama spoke up about black issues (like when he talked about Trayvon Martin), and his approval ratings went down. Obama also didn't want to be a litigator on race, but at times was pushed into it. Similarly, they think that if Clinton is elected (*Editor's note: dear lord, let it be so...), it will be hard for her to engage in issues around gender because people, led by Trump, are questioning her very legitimacy as a candidate.
  • Hating the Electoral College is not a modern phenomenon--people have sought to abolish it since the end of the 18th century! But keeping it is partly motivated by race--it has given whites more power.
  • Trump becoming more unhinged (like in 2nd debate) isn't good for people's faith in the democratic process (no kidding!)
  • "We're historians--we predict the past!"
  • Trump is performing for the people he wants to sell to in the future
  • Trump was helped by media--he's good at getting attention, so he got all this free media coverage from it. Marco Rubio eventually tried to tap into that, but couldn't beat Trump at his own game.
  • The Republican Party has been a coalition of a bunch of different factions that don't go together for a long time
  • Europe is having similar negative reactions to an influx of refugees and immigrants, which people like Putin have been stoking
Hopefully this has piqued your interest enough to make you want to check out the Book Festival next year! Almost every single one of their events is free. You may even get to meet one of your favorite authors and get your book signed, or you could discover an amazing author you'd never heard of before. Happy reading!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Small victories

Happy Friday! Sometimes, as a teacher, the small victories can make you really happy. Here are a few from this week:

1. One of my students, whose grade is literally around a 15 for the quarter, has been more focused this week, and today actually had his reading homework done and then CRUSHED IT with his classwork.

2. One of my girls kept her behavior under control today and was laser-focused on her work, and when I told her how much better she did today, she had such a great smile on her face.

3. A student who is both on an IEP and is an ESL (English as a Second Language) is really into the book we are reading (Waiting for Snow in Havana). Spanish is his first language, so he feels a connection with this Cuban author and loves when the author uses some Spanish. The other day, this boy was a star participant in class, and earned 2 merits for this (I usually only give a student 1 merit per class).

4. My co-teacher and I have been trying to get the behavior of one of our students under control, and so he's been earning a lot more demerits lately. He was definitely pissed about this, and made a lot of noise about it. But I think (I hope) it might finally be clicking for him. Today he did earn a demerit for talking across the room when he was supposed to be working with a partner, but when I told him he had a demerit he just said "okay" in a way that conveyed he knew he had been doing something wrong, and then he refocused on his work. His focus wasn't constant during class, but it was definitely much better and he was more productive. I made sure to tell him at the end of class that though there is still room for improvement, I was happy with how much better he did, and he was pleased to hear this.

5. When I gave my sophomores some classwork the other day, they all got right down to work and were silent basically the entire time. No need for reminders and shushing from me, no demerits. I couldn't believe it! I gave the whole class a merit for that. Now I just need to work on getting them to focus/behave that well all the time.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Taking a risk

I was recently told by a man that I am too cautious and not a risk-taker. While I have always recognized that I am a cautious person--I like to take the time to analyze a situation--I nevertheless felt hurt by these words. When I shared this with one of my dear and wise friends, she immediately dismissed what he said. She reminded me that I have taken a huge risk this year by accepting a job at a very different kind of school and by also accepting the position of Lead English Teacher. This was exactly what I needed to hear. While my risks may not be adrenaline activities or involve potentially damaging behaviors, the risks I take are those that seek to propel my life forward. At the end of the day, I'm okay with falling on that end of the risk spectrum.

I am working at an urban charter school this year. Though I attended a charter school myself, it bears little resemblance to my new workplace. The population is very different, there is a lot more structure (uniforms, merits-demerits system, stricter rules/policies), and my principal said we can refer to its rough location as "a neighborhood in transition." A high percentage of my students are reading and writing below grade level. The majority of them have experienced some type of trauma in their lives. I also have a number of ELL students (English Language Learners). These are new challenges for me, and they are certainly daunting.

What helps me feel better about taking on these challenges are the people that I work with. I co-teach two of my classes with a special education teacher (though we have told the kids that she is not just there to help the special ed students; we are both there to help everyone), and she has been amazingly helpful in making modifications for the students who need them and switching off with me in taking the lead in class. My department is small, but so far we are working well together and have been a good team. Our school is actually a new part of a network of three charter schools, and we could have chosen to just use the lesson plans that the first school already has in place. However, even though we are certainly making things more difficult for ourselves, we all have preferred thus far to create our own lessons, using only a few things here and there from the other school. It's been tough for me, as lead teacher of the department, to have to take on some extra responsibilities. What is exciting, though, is the opportunity to have more influence on what we're doing. For instance, I've already gotten my department on board with doing portfolios with the students. We talked about how this can benefit the students and how we can best structure it, and I think it's going to be a great initiative. Because our students need so much work on their writing, reflecting on their work and tracking their process should end up being very beneficial.

I also have a principal who wants to create a strong and positive school culture. She has talked a lot about teaching kids persistence and perseverance, going with the school's motto, "Smart isn't something you are. Smart is something you become." The average GPA last year was incredibly low, but while she wants that number to get higher, she has told us that we need to do it in a way that doesn't lower our standards. It's a refreshing attitude. The principal has also already observed/evaluated me twice. Is that absolutely terrifying? Yes. However, I recognize that it's better to start learning from my mistakes, rather than waiting four months and then having to struggle to break established habits. In addition, she has repeatedly asked how she can help me and support me, rather than just expecting me to know automatically how to make the changes she wants to see. Her feedback also always includes positive observations, which makes criticism easier to swallow (it's like when I'm grading essays--I always try to find something to compliment the students on).

Now that we're a few weeks into the year, the students' personalities are emerging more. This means that more challenges are presenting themselves, but also a lot of positive things. Some kids are learning how to speak up a little more, and we are trying to encourage all of them to believe that their contributions are valuable. I've started making good connections with a number of kids, and I just hope I can continue this. While all students, no matter where they are, could use more positive adult figures in their lives, these are the kinds of kids that need them even more. So while working in such a different environment may be a risk, it also has the potential to yield a much greater reward.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Shared experiences

I finally read a book that I mentioned in my post about Boston Book Festival 2014, Najla Said's memoir Looking for Palestine. It was an intriguing look at the complicated matter of multicultural identity. One section in particular caught my attention. When discussing her mother, who is from Lebanon, Said says, "I had no idea she spoke with an accent until my friend Caroline told me so when we were in the fourth grade." This may seem strange to many of you, but it instantly resonated with me. My mother is from Iran, and I remember people telling me when I was very young, "I love your mom's accent!" For some time, my reaction was, "What accent?" To me, that was just how my mother spoke; there didn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary about it. Plus, her sisters and other family members have much stronger accents than she does, so I only associated accents with them.

One of the powers of literature that I appreciate is how it can sometimes prove that our experiences or perspectives are not as weird as we might have thought. I loved discovering through this memoir that I was not alone in having this funny little experience. I'd always felt a bit silly for not realizing sooner what was so apparent to everyone else, but suddenly, here was affirmation that I was neither silly nor alone. Not bad for something I bought on Amazon, huh?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't

My sophomores have started reading Macbeth. (Yes, I know the quote in the title of this post is not from this play, but it's relevant, I swear.) It is one of my favorite things to teach (and I've taught it since my student teaching days, so I know it like the back of my hand). I feel like I've been more energetic while teaching it, partly because I'm more comfortable with the material, and it seems as though the kids are enjoying it more too. My level 2's love when we act the scenes out, and the other day, one of them said, "I actually look forward to English now." So great to hear!

Today, when they were saying how difficult Shakespeare is to understand, one of them asked me that age-old question: "Why do we need to read Shakespeare? I'm not going to use this." So I told him two things. The first is that Shakespeare is so influential in other literature and culture even today. The second reason I provided is that it helps us explore things in our own lives--ideas of what determines what happens in our lives (fate, free will, influence of other people), gender roles, etc. I'm here to teach them about ideas more than books. He told me that I was the first teacher to give him a good answer.

I was glad that he liked my answer, but I was also a bit dismayed that other teachers hadn't been able to provide an adequate response. All teachers, myself included, need to think more about what is important about what we're teaching. I remember talking last year with my colleagues about how our purpose isn't to teach books. We need to think of those books more as vehicles for teaching various skills and exploring different ideas, philosophies, cultures, dilemmas, etc. Many high school reading lists see few changes over the years because it is difficult to part with classic beloved texts, but even though it might be hard to imagine kids walking out of high school without being exposed to those books, it's more important to question if these are the most effective in helping kids truly learn the skills they need and in exposing them to the world. If all I had said to my student was, "Shakespeare is important," that wouldn't have been enough. Over the course of the unit, by tying the play to articles about modern-day life, short stories, poetry, and the students' lives, I hope they will see how Shakespeare is still relevant and helpful in examining their world. And hopefully this interest in acting out the play will translate to them being more comfortable with public speaking.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


I have this awesome student in one of my senior classes. She is a bright, kind, and conscientious young lady who is great at participating in class, and she led an awesome EdCafe last term. However, last term she also struggled with her writing, and ultimately earned a C+ for term 2. Her mom talked to me about how disappointed both of them were, but said her daughter was putting everything she had into the paper that was due today, determined to do well. The student had also conferenced with me the day before, and really worked to make sure she understood the revisions I was asking her to make.

They turned their papers in today, and since the conversation with the mother was still on my mind, I decided to grade the girl's paper while the students worked quietly on an assignment. Once school ended, I called her over and showed her the B+ grade she had earned. She bounced with happiness, saying with a big smile on her face that she was going to go tell her mom.

This is what happens when students don't give up, when they turn their disappointment into determination, when they choose to learn from their mistakes. The grade may not have been an A, but that's irrelevant--she had made such a great improvement over her last essay and demonstrated that she had truly learned something, so it was a victory.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Allowing kids to fail

A big part of why I do what I do is because I care about kids. I want to help them navigate the angst-filled journey that is adolescence, and to help them become good, productive, compassionate, responsible, conscientious global citizens. Sometimes though, I have to express my caring by being tough on them.
Many kids struggle to learn personal responsibility. When they don't meet with success in school, it is not uncommon to hear the blame be put on the teachers or some extenuating circumstances. Other times, they will try to bargain, claiming that they understand that they messed up, but if I bail them out this time they promise they'll do better the next time. There have been a couple of occasions, one recent, in which this has happened. The students tried to gain my sympathy, telling me that they knew they should have done all of those homework assignments or they knew they screwed up by not turning in that essay until two months after the fact, but that if they didn't pass my class for the term they would not be able to participate in a sport. One even tried to play the "You're an athlete too" card, hoping I'd empathize, but I told him I wasn't buying into that since I always kept up with my grades and never put myself in this situation. The other student tried telling me that she was sure I could get permission to change the grade (I got her essay on the day grades were finalized for the term), but I had to tell her that this was not the issue; the fact was that I wouldn't feel right about changing the grade. We have policies in place which the students are well aware of, and I had already stretched that for her in the first place due to special circumstances. I tried to be as gentle as I could, reminding her that she did well in the first term and I was sure she could get herself back on track for the rest of the year.

This student was distressed, appealing to a guidance counselor, but I knew I had to stay firm. In her eyes, I probably seem mean and cold-hearted, but I hope that someday she can understand that I do this not simply out of a sense of fairness, but because I care about the type of person she is going to become. So often these days we read about how kids struggle to stand up for themselves and solve their own problems because they are incredibly overprotected. Their parents are so afraid that their children will fail and feel badly about themselves that they make it impossible for the kids to fail or bail them out of any kind of trouble. While kids certainly need to know that their parents will be there for them and support them no matter what, protecting them in this way ultimately leaves them unable to cope with the difficult realities of life and prevents them from being able to pick themselves up after experiencing failure.
Making the problem worse are the teachers who also give kids an out. Though it is the responsibility of teachers to never give up on their students and to remain encouraging, as my cooperating teacher from my student teaching days told me, "Sometimes kids have to be allowed to fail." I have told struggling students before that the student-teacher relationship has to be a two-way street--I want so badly for them to succeed, but they have to want it for themselves, too. I'm there to give them the tools they need, but they have to use them. I'm not there to be a hand-holder. And if I make an exception like this that gives the student a way to avoid failing because of poor choices she made, I will only be setting a bad precedent. This way out becomes expected not only from me but from others as well.

One strategy that we could probably all try to emphasize more with kids (whether we are teachers or parents) is to remind them that just because they experience failure, that does not make them failures. Even though they may have made poor choices, there is an opportunity to recognize them and learn from them, and we have to help show them how to do that. Kids can't learn this if we bail them out of trouble every time, but hopefully will if we stay firm in our expectations of them while also showing them that we are positive about their abilities to meet those expectations if they make good choices.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

BBF and EdCafes

I have been meaning to blog for a while, so I've got a lot I want to share (though I've limited it to two topics). So buckle up and keep your arms and legs inside the ride, because here we go:

 Boston Book Festival

BBF was over a month ago, so you can see how long I've been procrastinating. This year's event was not quite as spectacular as last year's, but still a darn good day. I unfortunately missed out on the first talk I wanted to go to, as it was filled up, so I went and did some reading in Copley Square, noshed a bit, wandered around the booths, and chatted with a stranger running one of said booths about graphic novels. Next up was a talk called "Memoir: Descendants" featuring Eileen Rockefeller, Najila Said (daughter of famous Palestinian writer Edward Said), and Monica Wood. My favorite was Said, as I found her discussion of her confused identity to be fascinating. Her father was Palestinian but Episcopalian, her mother was Lebanese and yet Quaker, and Said grew up in New York surrounded by Jews (and acknowledged that she herself looks like she could be Jewish) and went to a school with lots of WASPs. She struggled to figure out where she fit in, often feeling like an outsider, and also dealt with an eating disorder. Some interesting quotes from her (because yes, I am a dork and bring a small notebook with me to the festival):

·        "We're given categories, and if you don't fit into them, you don't know what to do with yourself."
·        She said to her father, "I want to be Irish!" To which he replied, "You are Irish--you're Palestinian. What you want to be is a WASP."
·        "I felt horrible, and dirty, and other."

Maybe my interest in her is due to the fact that a number of the books I have taught deal with the subject of "otherness." In addition, growing up Jewish in a very non-Jewish area made me aware of my otherness, even if it was something that I did not struggle with nearly as much as Said did.

One thing that Rockefeller said that struck me was, "I'm still becoming myself; I don't know if I'll ever stop becoming." And Wood talked about how she found it easier to write her memoir than her works of fiction, partly because there was something comforting about revisiting her childhood memories. Another interesting idea from her: "Writing always asks the past to justify itself."

Next up was "Best American Sports Writing," at which point a couple of friends joined me for the remainder of the day. I mainly wanted to attend this one because the great Globe columnist Bob Ryan was the moderator. He is quite funny (he told us, "One of my friends is here from the most forlorn city in America: Cleveland"), though he does stumble over his words quite a bit (surprising for someone who's on TV all the time). One point that was discussed was that the book they were promoting was comprised largely of stories that just happened to include sports--sports was more of an entry point to larger stories and ideas, and many of the authors included in the book do not necessarily write about sports for a living. One of the panelists said, "We don't give a damn about sport, it's just an excuse to write about other things." Another one was discussing his book on the epic demise of Curt Schilling's 38 Studios, and how awkward it was to talk to Schilling about it. His summary: "I love the Red Sox; let's talk about all the lives you ruined." He discussed how the problem with this business was that Schilling thought he could basically will it into success. While this may work when you're an athlete, it doesn't cut it for a business owner. Schilling had "rampant and destructive optimism."

The final talk of the day that we attended was "True Crime." Kevin Cullen spoke about his latest work on Whitey Bulger. He had some humor for us, when saying that the two big obsessions in Boston are the Red Sox and Whitey: "The Red Sox are having a better year....Whitey might wanna think about growing a beard." But he also got very serious, and made it clear how much he despises both Bulger and the FBI agents involved with him. He said that some members of the FBI have tried claiming that Bulger only killed other gangsters, and said that, besides this not being true, he also does not want his government deciding who lives and who dies, and that what they were doing at that time. The author of "The Bling Ring" was also there. Another writer, Mirta Ojito, talked about how "words matter"--the things we say in casual conversation, especially around kids, are more influential than we might realize (her book is about teenagers who killed a man).

Didn't get any books signed this year, but we'll see who the event attracts next year!

 Increasing student choice

I've been working lately on finding ways to give my students more choices in the learning process. With my sophomores I've given them some different options on writing assignments (both creative and formal) so that they are still achieving the same learning goals but can do so in a way that is more likely to interest them. With my seniors, I recently tried something new (which I'd like to modify for my sophomores eventually). My friend Ms. K and I love swapping ideas about education, and I have picked up some great things from her over the last few years. One of her big innovations is something called "EdCafes." This is a form of student-led discussion that emphasizes student choice. What I had my students do was sign up on a calendar for a day to lead an EdCafe (between four and six students would go on each day). On the calendar was written which chapters they'd be discussing and where in the room they'd be stationed (the filing cabinet, the podium, the closet I've dubbed "Narnia," etc.). The night before their EdCafe, they had to email me their topic and its title, and if they got it to me by the deadline I'd send them feedback in case it needed to be strengthened.

On each EdCafe day, the student leaders would stand up and inform the class of what they'd be discussing and where. (I would also have this information projected on the board.) Then the rest of the class would choose which EdCafe to attend (I stressed that it was important to choose based on interest rather than friends) and move the desks around. The leaders had to provide their groups with a handout and then stand up and present their thoughts on the topic to their groups for 1-2 minutes. Then they could sit back down (much to their relief) and facilitate a group discussion, which the group members were expected to take notes on (by the end of the four sessions they were required to have at least a couple of pages of notes). I floated around the room listening in on snippets of the discussions/presentations and sometimes nudging the groups along if they got stuck or off-topic. When the discussion time would start winding down, I told the groups to work on coming up with a takeaway from their discussion, which the leaders presented to the class and which I typed up to project onto the board.

I'll admit that a few of the EdCafes were only so-so; it was clear when leaders were not fully prepared. But a lot of them were very interesting and successful. Students were almost always engaged--it's not as though they would start chit-chatting the second my back was turned. The students were truly listening and responding to one another, and having a group leader helped get them to delve deeper into the topics. Some of the discussions were still going strong when I told the groups to write their takeaway, and I felt sad about having to cut them off.

Another interesting observation I made was that successful EdCafes can come in different sizes. Some of the best discussions had five or maybe six students, while others had only the leader and one other person. One such tiny EdCafe was really wonderful to watch, because not only was the dialogue between the two girls flowing superbly, but the non-leader is normally rather quiet in class, and I enjoyed seeing how comfortable she felt to speak freely and express her ideas in this alternative setting. Other students who are similarly quiet on normal days showed great leadership when running their EdCafes, and I loved seeing them step up to the challenge. One girl is quite shy, and looked terrified when I told them they'd need to stand up during their presentations, and yet she presented for probably almost three minutes. I made sure to tell her afterwards how thrilled I was to see her crush it like that.

I enjoyed giving my students this kind of freedom and seeing most of them rise to the challenge. I told them how important it is for them to take ownership of the learning process and to learn to work more independently, as these are skills they will need in college and beyond. They still had some scaffolding in place, because independence is a learning process, but soon enough they'll be better at figuring these things out for themselves. I also had them choose their own topics for their essays, but required them to submit topic proposals and thesis statements so that I could conference with each student and help them craft stronger arguments.

I told my dad about what I'd been up to with my classes, and he said it was so interesting to see how much my charter school education has influenced my teaching practices. Independence and public speaking were two concepts I was VERY familiar with growing up. Every year, even in elementary school, we had to present an "Exhibition of Mastery"--mine were on such topics as Civil War photographer Mathew Brady and female sports journalists (for which I did a phone interview with the great Jackie MacMullan). As I've written about before, the workshop/project classes we took (I did theater for three years) taught us to take charge of the learning process. We often had to find the resources we needed in order to accomplish our goals. In our classes we were encouraged to share our ideas. Independence became second nature for us. And in this day and age when kids are coddled far too often, I've realized how important that independence is. I want to keep on experimenting with these different methods of giving my students more choices and encouraging them to take more ownership of their education so that they will know how to think for themselves rather than just depending on strict guidelines. If I can make them more independent thinkers, I will know that I've accomplished something meaningful.
A few examples of handouts:

For more on EdCafes, go to

Friday, October 4, 2013

Happy days

I am now a month into my new job, and the verdict is in: I am happy. Six months ago things were tough, but it was also scary to think about having to make a change. They say, "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know," right? Plus, I loved so many of my students and it was tough to think of leaving them behind (I miss a number of them terribly). But even though this is just a half-year long-term sub position, I'm so happy to be where I am, and I think that, in the long run, this is going to be a positive transition year for me.

My students rock. I've dealt with a lot of student apathy in the past, and it's been frustrating, but most of these kids show up prepared and get their work done. In addition, discipline issues are almost non-existent. It's nice to feel less like a babysitter and more like a teacher. Thus far I have not had to write anyone up or send anyone out of class, and the students have been quite respectful of me. As a result, I feel that I have a much more positive energy in the classroom this year. Part of that is also a conscious effort on my part--I keep reminding myself to give praise more often and to encourage them to keep up the good work, as well as to tell them how excited I am to do an activity with them or to see the work they've done.

Yesterday, my senior classes did Socratic Circles. For those of you who aren't familiar, a Socratic Circle is, in a nutshell, a student-led discussion that they prep notes for ahead of time. These Socratic Circles came at the end of our unit "Genocide in Literature," which includes the memoir Night. The students discussed ideas about social responsibility and the importance/role of personal narratives, pulling not only from Night but also from the memoir A Long Way Gone (their summer reading book), plus articles and videos on the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides and the bystander effect. I invited the department head to come see what the kids were doing, and he came to my last block. Even though most of these students had never even heard of Socratic Circles before this year, they did a fantastic job. The department head told the students he was so impressed with how they synthesized information from all these different sources and then used it to formulate arguments (gotta love those great higher-order thinking skills!), as well as with how they were talking about issues that are still very relevant in our society today (for example: the students made connections with what's been happening in Syria). I was also quite pleased with them. One group earlier in the day didn't do as well, but I know that the next time they'll understand what to expect and will nail it. I told both classes that even though I'm not a morning person, I had been so excited to come to school that day and see them discuss all of their ideas. They chuckled at me, but I hope that positivity rubs off on them. They seemed to enjoy the experience, and asked me if we could do more of these. Hurray! One kid even wore a suit jacket and tie, because he felt it was a special occasion. I'm curious to see if he gets his buddies to join him next time. :)

There have been a couple of students I've been struggling with. One of them was turning in almost no work and had a bad attitude, and it was really frustrating. But after communicating with home, I got him to stay after school with me last week and we had a really good talk. This week he has been turning in assignments and participating a lot more in class. Today the students were rehearsing some scenes from the stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and he was really putting in a great effort. I high fived him at the end of class and told him how great it was that he was buckling down. Hopefully he sees that I believe in him and will stay on this better path.

This weekend I'll be reading a bunch of college essays. I helped them on their drafts and it seems like it should be a decent crop. Wish me luck!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

What "should" we read?

I was just reading this post on the Brookline Booksmith blog, and thought it brought up an interesting point. A student said, "I read New Moon, but then I made myself read Emily Dickinson before moving on to Eclipse. I always read a book I should read before one I want to read." Her professor lamented, "But that's tragic. You're treating literature like...vitamins."

So why do we often treat classic literature like it's our duty to read it, like it's good for us but not enjoyable? Too many people have this perception that all classics are stuffy. Sometimes, after reading a classic like Lord of the Flies or Macbeth, a couple of students will say, "I actually really liked it!" While I'm pleased that they enjoyed it, I wish they wouldn't sound so surprised. After all, the classics became classified as such because of their great impact. However, I think that one thing that's important to remember is that you're not going to like every single classic, and that's okay, but just because you don't like a couple does not mean you should automatically condemn the rest. Though in general I like Shakespeare, I despise Antony and Cleopatra. I have a love-hate relationship with Jane Austen. I love such classics as Jane Eyre, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Great Expectations, but dislike Wuthering Heights (except for this version...skip to 1:05), Catcher in the Rye, and Cranford (ok, I didn't even get past page 50 of this one it was so dull, because apparently nothing happened in country life in the 19th century). Different people just have different tastes, and it's important to try out different classics to see what appeals to you. 

As for why I read the classics, it is not simply because they are "good" for me, though I certainly think they are in that they challenge one's mind. Though Jane Eyre is of a different time, I admire that she is a strong-willed woman who goes after what she wants. Atticus Finch strives to be a good role model for his kids, just as my parents have been for me and I hope to be for my children someday. Miss Havisham shows the dangers of bitterness, regret, and revenge. Truly great stories have timeless themes, even if some of the details become dated. Absorbing their lessons can help us gain a greater understanding of our own lives. Yes, sometimes the language can be a bit difficult to grasp at first, but it's worth working through. I always enjoy when my students come to understand the Porter scene in Macbeth, and realize that good ol' Billy Shakes had a dirty sense of humor. Furthermore, I enjoy having a greater understanding of how literature has developed, how it's influenced people over time, and how it represents the hopes and fears of society in any given time period.

As for "guilty pleasures," there's nothing wrong with them. Reading is a great activity, even if your chosen book is the latest Lauren Weisenberger novel. Those kinds of books go down easily and amuse us, and amusement is worthwhile. Yes, I do think that it's important to also read books that challenge us more and are a bit deeper, but as said before, deeper thinking doesn't mean that something is boring and unenjoyable. I love hiking, even though not every hill is easy. But the conversations I have along the way, the sense of accomplishment I feel, and the view from the top sure make the challenges worth it. Great literature will give you similar feelings. Lighter books are maybe more akin to a walk around your neighborhood. Not as challenging, and perhaps without as big a payoff, but it's still good exercise as well as fun to chat with whoever you're with. Each type of book has its rewards, and they shouldn't be categorized as stuff we "want" to read versus stuff we "should" read.

So far this summer I've read Beautiful Creatures (dreadful writing, but amusing), Peter and the Starcatchers, and The Outsiders (so many students have recommended this to me, included kids who generally hate reading, and I loved it!). Also on my list is The Professor and the Madman, Middlemarch, And the Mountains Echoed (the new Khaled Hosseini excited), To Kill a Mockingbird (since I haven't read it since 9th grade), some short stories, and whatever else I end up fancying. I like to mix up the types of books I choose, and not just by "classics" versus everything else...different books suit different moods. What are you reading this summer?