Coming up for air at NCTE 2009

November 19th, 2009 | Filed under: preservice, teaching

So, I had this grand idea that I would post weekly during my student teaching experience, but it looks like time (and mental energy) has gotten away from me to say the least. I’m in the eleventh week of my 14-week internship and I can’t believe how fast it’s all gone by. I’m having trouble just finishing the work I have to do as a student teacher – mainly my Impact on Student Learning project and my digital portfolio.

But my arrival in Philadelphia for the annual National Council of Teachers of English conference has me reinvigorated to reflect on my teaching experience so far.

Everyone told me it would be the hardest but the most rewarding experience of my life and I really think that’s true. There are so many students I’m teaching that I know I’ll remember for the rest of my life – some because of their amazing and unexpected insights during class discussions, others for their quirky behaviors that challenge my patience.

These are just a few of the things I’ve learned through this internship that I don’t think could be transferred to the classroom, which makes me so thankful that I decided to go the traditional route for this license (which included student teaching) despite my non-traditional/career-switching situation:

1. Classroom management cannot be mastered in a semester.

I have wonderful students. Most of jump right into my class discussions without my having to plead with them. They teach me new things every day. But…they love to talk and engage one another with goofy faces and smiles from across the room. On the one hand, they are 14-years-old! What should I expect? On the other hand I want so desperately for them to listen to their classmates during discussions and engage in the material. How do I get these exciting discussions going while also maintaining some level of decorum? I hate to “shh” them because I feel like it stifles everything. I want the lively discussion and debate without having to rein them in. Cake and eating it too?

2. Creating effective assessment has been the hardest thing I’ve done all semester and, subsequently, bringing closure to units and creating effective review of the material has been the second hardest thing.

We read “The Nose” by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, “Borges and I” by Jorge Borges and “To Julia de Burgos by Julia de Burgos” as the first unit focusing on identity and duality. It was a wonderful and challenging way to start the course. Some students panicked when reading Borges with the way he leads you around until you’re a bit dizzy, forcing you to read sentences over and over to find his meaning, but once they understood the theme of the essay and his purposes in creating a maze of words I could tell they felt accomplished. They beat Borges’ essay into something they could digest and found it rewarding. The same was true for our studies of Ryunosuke and de Burgos. But then came time to assess and that’s when I started panicking. I didn’t know how to even start creating a test let alone a review for the material. I settled on small group discussions of higher-order thinking questions about the material in an effort to tie all three works together. The test itself included multiple choice questions and two essays. I know in my heart that the essay questions are the way to go, but I did have some regrets as I spent hours grading 110 tests (meaning, 220 essays). Once I finally finished grading everything, I took 20 minutes out of each block to go over the test, showing models of students that received full credit on the essays. The entire assessment process really took it all out of me, but the reward was seeing that most of my students had learned a great deal and could show me so with their essays.

3. It excites me to see students reading and writing on their own (I have quite a few aspiring authors in my classes), but it always pains me when I have to tell them to put their works away in class.

It’s my class and they should respect that by engaging in the lesson not reading independently while the rest of us work, but I’m always afraid I’m doing some sort of damage by forcing them to close the book or put down the pen. And I’m not talking “Twilight” or “Harry Potter” here, I’m talking heavyweight literature. This is not a joke – I had to tell one of my ninth graders to put away his copy of “Anna Karenina.” Another was deep into creating characters for his next play. The top of his paper read “Dramatis Personae.” Seriously.

4. I need to learn to roll with the punches.

I don’t know how many times I’ve griped about best-laid plans in these 11 weeks, but I need to stop and just start getting used to working around things. It’s part of the job, but it’s been one of the hardest things for me to grasp. And I don’t think contingency planning within my lesson plans would make much difference. It’s something you get better at over time, I think. My cooperating teacher is great at it.

Speaking of my cooperating teacher, I don’t think I could have been placed with a better person. She has very high standards for her students and runs a tight ship in the classroom, but also connects with them on emotional levels. When it comes to what’s best for students, I really think she combines the best of both worlds. She doesn’t coddle them or let things slide, but she’s also kind and understanding of where they are in life. Fourteen is a strange age and after nearly 20 years of teaching, she really understands who they are when they enter that classroom and how jarring high school is.

I’ve learned a lot from her in this short time, but the two things that stick out in my mind are classroom management and the value of in-depth discussion. She is a true believer, and research has supported this, in the idea that talking and discussing an issue or work of literature helps you learn. As an incentive, class participation is 10 percent of the students’ grade. At first running a class discussion really intimidated me, but my university supervisor says I’m improving my method of asking leading questions during discussions – of phrasing questions in such a way that it optimizes getting the answers I want.

I’m looking forward to hitting the ground running tomorrow at NCTE 2009. I attended last year’s convention when I was in the middle of education coursework, but now that I have some real teaching under my belt I feel like I’m going to get even more out of the sessions. And I feel more confident about joining a round table discussion session.

I’ll be posting daily, hopefully, about my experiences in Philadelphia at NCTE. Hope to see you there!


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I’d love to get to teaching, but…

September 24th, 2009 | Filed under: preservice, teaching

I’m finishing up my third week of student teaching and we have yet to start studying literature thanks to an intense schedule of standardized tests, writing and reading assessments, and orientations for freshmen.

We’re in the throes of the Stanford 10 test right now and the entire next week is shot. We may have time for teaching toward the end of each block, depending on how quickly students complete the test sections, but nothing guaranteed. My cooperating teacher and I have had one day of uninterrupted teaching since school started on Sept. 8.

Maybe this is typical, but I’m really blown away by what the freshmen are having to go through in their English classes at the beginning of the year. Here are just a few of the things:

– First day of school housekeeping
– Freshman orientation
– Writing assessment
– Reading assessment (on laptops, which included a lot of set up and clean up time)
– Library media center orientation
– Stanford 10 testing

I was warned that everything that kids have to get done happens in English class because everyone has to take English, but seriously?

When I tell people I’m an English teacher, some like to make the annoyingly broad comment “Good! Cuz kid’s can’t read and write worth a hoot these days,” or something similar. Next time I hear that I might joke it’s because we don’t actually get to teach English half the time.

This isn’t to say I haven’t been learning a tremendous amount in the first few weeks of my internship – mainly classroom management. I have a few students that are going to be a challenge for me, management-wise, and I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with them.

I’m also struggling with how to assert myself within the dynamic of cooperating teacher / student teacher. The longer we spend with me in an assisting role, which is all I can really do in these weeks of testing, the longer it will take students to see me as THE teacher.

So that’s why I haven’t had much to update. I did have a great conversation with my journalism students today about the media and whether it reflects what we the people care about, or rather if we care about issues because the media covers it in such a way that makes us care about it. I was so excited by their excitement during the discussion that I let the time get away from me, though. I was quite embarrassed when my cooperating teacher came back to the class to find I hadn’t moved very far through the chapter. Oops! Pacing is something I’ll need to work on.

I’m still researching options for putting the student newspaper online. If you have any ideas, please share! We’re obviously on a limited (maybe nonexistant?) budget for this. So far I’ve looked at HighSchoolJournalism.org(free!), SchoolNewspapersOnline.com(so expensive!), and WordPress.

I also set up a wiki for the journalism students. To start, we’re just using the discussion forum as a place for students to read and respond to news articles, but I’m hoping to do more with it soon.


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Student Teaching Week 1

September 13th, 2009 | Filed under: preservice, teaching, technology

I couldn’t think of a more exciting title for this post because, to tell you the truth, the first week of classes wasn’t very exciting. Trust me, I had a great time and I’m excited about getting to work with the students, but the first week was full of paper work, book distribution, locker combinations, student information sheets, course expectations, a fire drill, a pep rally and one epic two-hour blackout thanks to a record-breaking rainstorm on the first day of classes. I sat at the front of the class with a flashlight under my chin.

A few lessons I’ve learned so far:

1. I need to perfect strategic bathroom breaks – 90 minutes is a long time.
2. Most teachers don’t eat. I’m trying not to become one of them with healthy breakfasts and lunches each day.
3. Proximity and eye contact work wonders.
4. Err on the side of belaboring the point with students rather than run the risk of leaving some behind. I really need to work on this.
5. Study halls are quite boring on the first week of school.

I had a chance to lead a discussion about the themes of the course with two blocks of students – two very different blocks of students. The first group I worked with started a vibrant discussion among one another – they weren’t just talking to me, they were talking with one another. But the next group, which was the first block of the day, really struggled with explaining, discussing and understanding the themes.

That’s about the only teaching I’ve done, but next week I’ll be easing into more duties and hopefully by week three I’ll be making my own plans. I’m being observed for the first time by my university supervisor and I’m more than a little nervous.

I have all 9th graders for world literature. The high school where I’m teaching houses the school system’s global studies and foreign language academy and all of my students are a part of the academy. I have one class, Journalism I & II, of both academy and non-academy students.

And I had an exciting moment with two of my students – they remembered me from my practicum experience last year when they were 8th graders!

My favorite part of the week so far was standing outside the door welcoming students into the class – using their names when I remembered them. It felt very teacher-y. And we showed Obama’s speech on Tuesday during the journalism course which made for a fitting discussion of the media coverage surrounding the event.

My cooperating teacher and I are interested in developing online writing portfolios for the 9th grade and journalism students, but I’m not sure of the best way to go about it. Wikis? The school system uses Microsoft Sharepoint. Any recommendations would be great!


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Student teaching starts next week!

August 27th, 2009 | Filed under: preservice, technology

The time has come.

I start my student teaching experience officially on September 8th, but I’m spending some time next week getting to know my cooperating teacher and the school through staff meetings and orientations.

Needless to say I’m a ball of nerves right now, but I’m so excited to start.

I’m going to be reflecting on my experience here often. My goal is at least once a week, which will help me stay on track with the required journal portion of my portfolio.

As a writer and former newspaper reporter, I was thrilled to be paired with a veteran teacher that spent nearly 20 years in the newspaper business before embarking on a nearly 20-year (and counting) career in education.

I’ll be teaching 9th grade English and journalism (all grades). The journalism courses produce the school newspaper five times a year. They don’t have a Web portion up yet for the paper, but my cooperating teacher, I’ll call her Mrs. D, said I could make that one of my focuses during the internship – to help the students develop a Web site for the paper. She also expressed an interest in getting students’ portfolios online as opposed to on discs and asked for my help there.

I’m excited to be able to utilize my training as a reporter in the classroom and that I’ve been lucky enough to be placed with a teacher that is excited about what I am bringing to the table, such as my enthusiasm for technology.

On first impressions, I can tell Mrs. D has very high expectations for her students. She makes no bones about what she expects from them, which I greatly respect. Some of my best teachers were the ones that pushed me so I could finally see what I was capable of achieving.

This is going to be a difficult 14 weeks, but as they told us in the orientation, “you can do anything for 14 weeks.” I just have to keep telling myself that.


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Home stretch! An update

April 27th, 2009 | Filed under: personal, preservice, teaching

Well, it’s the home stretch for this semester at least. I’m taking two more classes this summer before heading into student teaching in the fall. This week I have plenty of assignments due (many of which I’m procrastinating on while writing this blog post) and exams next week.

I can’t believe how much I’ve done in these last few months – I quit my job, moved, started my own business, and started an even more rigorous class schedule. But sometimes it’s hard not to always feel behind. I just have to keep my eyes on the prize – a new, more rewarding career! Ironically, a career where other people assure me I’ll always feel behind on my to-do list.

I finished my last day of practicum hours with the middle schoolers this past week. I was sad to leave! As I’ve said before, the school where I was placed is a wonderful and caring community to say the least. I always thought middle school was something I didn’t want to do, but it’s funny how quickly those feelings can change.

I have plenty of posts I want to share once I have some free time, including my recent thoughts about GLBTQ literature in the classroom. It’s a big interest area of mine and luckily the newest issue of English Journal is dedicated to sexual identity and gender variance. If you’re a member of NCTE, you can read the articles online here. I highly recommend it. I also have a book review I’ve been working on that I’d like to share in the coming weeks.


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I passed the Praxis II !!!

April 14th, 2009 | Filed under: preservice

Whew. What a relief. I thought for sure I was going to have to at least take it a second time. Many of the folks in the classroom with me were taking it for their second and third times. We were organized alphabetically, so maybe the W last names tend to do poorly on the Praxis II, but I was an outlier!

I needed a 172 to pass and received a 191 out of 200. I just wanted to pass, but the score was a pleasant surprise! Especially after not taking a high-stakes test like this since high school.

Now I can focus my attention on all the other work I still have yet to complete for this teaching license – practicum (only a few more hours), this semester and all of its work, two classes this summer, then student teaching in the fall.

What a weight off my chest!


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Testing for teachers

March 13th, 2009 | Filed under: preservice

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately since I’m swimming in standardized tests for my teaching license.

I took the VCLA reading and writing test this morning, which was fairly easy and straightforward, but long! And I’m set to take the Praxis II English (0041) tomorrow morning. I’m actually nervous about that one since it tests content knowledge, which is why I’m blogging (ahem, procrastinating) instead of studying. I took a Cliffs practice test yesterday and my score took my breath away. Needless to say I need to study poetry meters tonight.

Not the best planning on my part to schedule two tests in two days, especially over spring break, but I’m hoping this will be the only time I have to take these tests (fingers crossed!).

Taking these two tests was enough, but to think if I had to take the Praxis I! I’m lucky my SAT scores were high enough to exclude me from having to take the Praxis I, because I don’t know how much more of this testing I can take, let alone how much more my wallet can take. With registration fees and testing fees, I spent nearly $300 on the two tests.

What are your experiences with these tests? How did you study? What are your opinions on these sorts of tests?

I’m thinking if I were actually teaching the content day-to-day I would be more confident with the material, but since I’m not I feel grossly unprepared for the Praxis II tomorrow. I’ve been told not to worry, but I’m a terrible test taker.


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“But SOLs are over!”

March 6th, 2009 | Filed under: preservice, teaching

Friday was the first day for some of the 8th grade students to have English class after completing their writing SOL on Tuesday and Wednesday. They were surprised to find a writing assignment on the agenda – a book review for a contest.

The first question out of the students: “Why are we writing? The writing SOL is over.”

I think this warrants a sigh.

*Sigh.*

The last two weeks I’ve been with these students, the writing SOL has been the focus of every class. What the students are learning (types of essays and their parts, writing introductions/conclusions, test strategies, etc.) is applicable beyond the SOL – we know that. How do we show students that the SOLs are very important, but that learning in general is the goal? I’m sure this is an old struggle for most public school teachers, but this was my first experience with the SOL.

I took a few SOLs in high school, but graduated before they became a prerequisite for graduation, so the pressure wasn’t nearly as great. I’m wondering how I will get the point across to my students that the SOL is important (not necessarily my opinion – just a fact), but that we need to strive toward improving our writing skills even beyond these major tests. That needs to be the overall goal – learning something new everyday and pushing ourselves to try more. It’s unfortunate the SOL, a minimum standards assessment, is often the goal.

In other, less depressing news, I taught almost an entire block on my own! We discussed the parts of a book review, what we might include in a review, favorite quotes that we might include, etc. The students are able to choose from two of the books they’ve read – “Gathering Blue” by Lois Lowry or “Night” by Elie Weisel. Then we ate popsicles!


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My not-so-secret thoughts

February 24th, 2009 | Filed under: personal, preservice

This is my attempt at an online confessional – sort of a personal exercise to work out my own ideas about teaching and to discover that elusive “philosophy” they keep talking about. My philosophy of teaching changes with every class I attend, with every discussion I have with a teacher and with every day I spend in a real school with real, live students.

A little bit about me…

My decision to pursue education came after I decided my dream of working in newspapers wasn’t quite what I imagined. I studied English in college with an emphasis in journalism while spending every waking minute I could as editor of my college paper or consuming media criticism, journalism tips and writing techniques. I wanted so badly to be a gum-shoed reporter, sticking it to the man and sniffing out stories in between coffee and cigarette breaks, but that just wasn’t what it turned out to be. I got an internship at a local business journal with the best editors and co-workers you could imagine – kind people that took the time to help you and nurture your writing and research techniques. I was eventually offered a full-time position there and savored it, but after a while I realized the world of corporate newspapers wasn’t what I imagined. I often found myself conflicted ethically with decisions made in the corner office while scraping two pennies together. I started to feel resentful and decided it wasn’t worth it. I admitted to myself, finally, that this dream just wasn’t working out. It’s a hard thing to do when your first job is your “dream job” complete with a wonderful boss and co-workers that become like close family.

So I decided to pursue something I felt I could be great at, but that I was too scared to consider in the beginning. I quit my job at the newspaper and launched into a teaching certificate program at my alma mater, Old Dominion University. To support myself I’ve continued writing at my old job, thanks to generous freelance opportunities from my editor, and started pursuing other gigs. Working freelance has given me almost everything I could have wanted – a connection with my dear co-workers, a way to keep my writing gears moving, income, and some great satisfaction knowing I can make it on my own. The only thing I miss is the health insurance, but I keep telling myself this is all temporary while taking advantage of hand railings, always looking both ways and wearing my bike helmet.

When I first decided to leave the media world, I felt like a failure. I was the one person in my group of friends with a job in their field right out of college. But I’m proof that we’re not meant to discover a singular passion to pursue for the rest of our lives. And truly, I don’t see the move from journalism to teaching as much of a stretch. I thought of my role as a reporter as one of educator – pursuing a story and attempting to explain it in such a way that a wide audience could learn from it. Isn’t this what we aim for in teaching? To trasmit or facilitate lessons in such a way that all of our students learn? Once I made this connection my feelings of failure melted away – I’d found a purpose for my journalism training in supplementing my career as an educator.

Thank you for visiting my blog. Even though I started this as a conversation with myself, I hope you’ll join and offer suggestions and ideas to make me a better teacher.


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