Last year I started my first international school teaching job here in The Netherlands at a school implementing the Middle Years Programme. I was so excited! Concept based curriculum, theme-based units, opportunities to incorporate all sorts of texts and assessments, no mandates or state standards to worry about! Just a framework within which I was expected to bring students to a general set of objectives in the subjects I teach, which are English and technology.
Now, there are few “MYP textbooks” out there. And if you talk to most teachers working in the program, many just use their own resources, gather materials from a selection of books, use the Internet, etc. It’s great to be able to do that. Last year I decided not to order any textbooks and instead focus on getting short stories online or from anthologies, use our sister school’s library, etc.
In short, it was exhausting. I’ve been trying to think about why this was so hard for me and I’ve come to a few conclusions:
There is no curriculum – I’m writing it. This freedom is both exhilarating and overwhelming at the same time. Everything was an option, which sometimes froze me in my tracks.
I haven’t been teaching that long. Veteran teachers have that expert knowledge that comes from years of experience – they know what texts are great for which age group and can work from those experiences. I have a few of those I’m coming from, but not nearly enough to make planning a breeze. It’s still a big learning curve for me.
Scouring the Internet for resources isn’t as easy and relaxing as it seems. In addition to planning MYP units (very labor intensive for those new to it), crafting assessments and task-specific rubrics, marking and starting up the school, searching for resources online late at night to fit my unit question was painful. It wasn’t enjoyable.
So this year I made a decision to purchase some textbooks. A selection of literature textbooks to add to the resources I purchased last year (short story collections, a few novels) and the resources we have at our neighboring school library. For a second I cringed as I made the order – am I failing in a way? Am I taking the easy way out?
I think most of the negativity towards textbooks comes from the fact that they try to sum up an entire course in one book and we know, as teachers of our subject, that’s just not possible. Who do they think they are? Really?
And don’t get me started on the corporate nature of textbook companies, the up-selling, the price of these things, etc. There are a lot of reasons to talk trash about textbooks. But, just like timed writing and test preparation, I’m finding they have their place.
So, I’m sitting here on a rare Friday off, sipping some tea and flipping through a collection of myths and folktales in one of the textbooks. During my student teaching, myths and folktales was one of the first units I taught and I loved it. My MYP 1 students (6th graders) are studying oral traditions and storytelling before they compose their own myths to read to our primary students. I’m enjoying what I’m finding in the textbook. There are a few activity ideas I hadn’t thought of and some great guiding questions I could use in discussion with my students. That doesn’t mean I’m going to assign the question list for homework or anything like that, but I’m picking and choosing. And not feeling dirty about it. These textbooks are for me – to the students, nothing much has changed.
As new teachers we’re confronted with a lot of issues and controversies about which we’re supposed to make an opinion, right there and then. Just by scrolling through my Twitter feed I’m confronted with hot button issues, words I’m supposed to stop using, new euphemisms to embrace. I had a lot of strong opinions about what is supposed to happen in a classroom and how a teacher is supposed to do things. That was before I actually worked in a classroom. I’m realizing, somewhat begrudgingly, that there’s a lot of grey area in what we do.
So here I am, flipping through a textbook, and loving it. It’s not the answer. It’s not replacing my planning. It’s not my easy way out. But it is a part of what I do and I’m not going to feel bad about it. In fact, I kind of regret not ordering them sooner.
I’m sitting in an empty classroom as the cleaning lady drags her mop bucket across the floor, waiting for the rain to let up so I can bike home and start my weekend. But, such as things are in The Netherlands (forgive me while I cliche), the rain won’t seem to stop and just seems to pound harder each time I go to pack my bag and leave.
I’ve done a lot of things with my students this week, but one thread seems to follow through all of the classes and cross year and subject boundaries (I teach English and technology). Helping students find an idea or topic that excites them – one that they own – that the teacher didn’t let them choose from a list – one that emerged from the depths of their own interests and ideas that maybe they didn’t even realize they had…that is one of my favorite parts of teaching.
It is much easier to create a list of topics and let your students choose from that list. It feels like you’re giving them choices and like you’re progressive because you aren’t controlling everything like some teachers you know. I understand why teachers do this. It’s easier and, more importantly, it’s faster. Give them the topics so they can get on with the real assignment, right?
Generating ideas in an effort to find that magical one that sparks interest and motivation is pretty time consuming. I know because I often underestimate how long it will take students to find “the one.” I push a little, but not much. I want them to experience that “lost in the middle of the desert” feeling that so many writers or designers or learners experience. I want them to know the false starts and the red herrings that seem like they might be “the one,” but that turn out to be nothing more than empty pursuits. Forgive my cheesy metaphor, but it’s the journey, the being tricked cruelly by the mirages, that makes the real thing that much sweeter. It’s still an uphill battle, no matter the task, but having a topic you enjoy working with makes the climb worth it.
You can’t get that from a list of prescribed topics. You never will.
As a disclaimer, I will say the only time I’ve ever issued a list of topics is in the case of timed writing tasks with my older students. I think it’s important for them to see what they might encounter in higher education and on Diploma Programme exams. I will say their experience with brainstorming and the patience to do so in the face of a ticking clock was a big enough pay off for me to keep spending the time on it in class. It’s important and they understand that enough to sketch out some spider maps or outlines before they start scribbling their pens across the page.
It’s a strange thing being a part of a digital network of teachers from all over the world, especially when you’re still a new teacher, feeling your way through this complex profession (when do you stop feeling new?). Even weirder when you’ve moved to a new country and are helping to open a school from the ground up. A terrifying, exciting, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Did I mention terrifying?
As the time ticks down to the end of August when I will meet my students for the first time – students that will likely be from all over the world, with experiences my younger self could only dream of having, with passport stamps to lands I’ve only seen in movies – sweat is beginning to bead upon my brow. My breathing has increased in pace and seems unlikely to slow until I get into a groove this fall and find some confidence and systems and routines. Sleep is unfulfilling and interrupted with bursts of 3:30 a.m. panic or inspiration or both.
See, I haven’t taught for the last year. I moved to The Netherlands in the summer of 2010 and spent months securing residency and trying to settle into my new home. I have had my head in the education world thanks to some other work and planning this new school, but as for teaching, I’ve not been in a room with students since June 2010. And really, I hadn’t spent too much time working with students before that. Still a “new” teacher, remember?
I am a new teacher. In a new school. In a new country. Doing so many new things, I feel like I’m learning with every turn. Nothing feels like something I’ve done before. This is a powerful and exhausting experience and I constantly find myself asking “is this right?” I try to see my newness as a positive and not as a disadvantage, but there are those days where you can’t help but feel like you will never measure up to the pros.
Thankfully I have that digital network of teachers behind me. It can feel, at times, like a sounding board in the form of a well-worn safety blanket – something to run to when you just don’t know where else to go. This metaphor could be perceived any number of ways – is it a way to feel “connected” in a profession prone to loneliness? Or a false sense of security in a job where, in the end, you really do it on your own every day?
But a strange thing has happened. As I feel the pressure of not disappointing my colleagues, parents, my new students, myself…I feel an even bigger pressure not to disappoint this network. See, when you surround yourself with people you consider experts – people you admire and learn from every day, sharing wowing ideas and experiences in education – you also have an even bigger cadre of people you can disappoint. This pushes me to try harder and do my best, but I know there will be mistakes. There will be days when I think “man, should I even BE a teacher?” I’m wondering if I’ll be confident enough to share those moments with these same teachers, or if I will bury them away in my notebook and keep the shame to myself. I find myself wondering if the “mistakes” shared by the educators I connect with online are akin to the “weaknesses” job applicants share in interviews – perceived downsides that really just beef up your strengths in the end. Do we really share the teaching skeletons in our closets? The moments we were so happy no one was observing that day? The strategies we used and think back on with the sort of stomach turning that only an embarrassing, high school moment can induce? And if we don’t share them, acknowledge them, and think about them, do we really learn from them?
I will be teaching Language A & B English and Technology in all years of the MYP* in addition to some other hats this year as our new school opens later this month. A new school necessitates many hats being worn by only a few teachers. I bounce between moments of feeling brave and proud of myself for tackling such a project, but as the days tick closer those wins are punctuated with “are you crazy? What makes you think you can do this? Leave this stuff up to the pros – you’re not there yet.’” My consolation is knowing that my colleagues are in this with me. We are heading into unfamiliar seas and it is scary, but we are together.
I know the path toward becoming a great teacher means walking that path as a teacher. I know at some point you have to leave behind consuming and reading and learning from your network – the theory – to do the thing you believe you were meant to do – teach. After a year of floating around, I may not feel completely ready to do that, but I am hoping when I do I can turn back to that same group of teachers and say “you were right. It wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was amazing. And damn, it feels good to be here again.”
*This equates to 6th through 10th grade in the U.S. As a small school, we will have some grouping of grades, which is yet another new and exciting experience for me.
Should we abandon the idea of boy- and girl-friendly texts?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of teaching to boys and teaching to girls. I even had my mom bring over my battered copy of Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys from the states. My worry is that through these ideas – of accentuating the gender binary in our pedagogical strategies – that we might be enforcing this binary and pushing kids that don’t fit into it further into the fringe. Photo by sleepyneko.
I’m not the most well-read when it comes to YA lit, which is one of the many reasons I adore and appreciate and never take for granted the wonders of librarians. I depend on them and seek them out when I need recommendations or ideas of how to engage a student. Maybe the librarian even knows this student and can give me some ideas about what he might like. I get that it is much easier to describe texts with terms like “boy-friendly” or “girl-friendly.” It’s important to get boys reading. I will never dispute that. But I wonder if it’s more important for us to frame this as getting children reading and abandon this binary.
Thanks to amazing programs and a society with more and more progressive leaders, children are feeling more empowered to come out as whoever they might be. Young girls are coming out as lesbians at an earlier age. Boys are coming out as gay. Children are self-identifying as genders other than the ones they were assigned at birth. And then there are those “tom-boys” and “sensitive guys” that don’t fit the ideas of what publishers deem “boy-friendly.” What about all of these kids?
As a woman I know I’m often offended at the assumption I love rom-coms and tear-jerker films…or that I love jokes about high heels and how “men just don’t get it.” I don’t, for the record. I like documentaries and funny movies and sci-fi. I like comic books. I love RPG video games, but don’t like first-person shooters and things like Call of Duty. I love computers and technology and reading about science. But then again I also love cooking and read food blogs. I love knitting and arts and crafts. I enjoy surrounding myself with artists and designers. I despise clothing and shoe shopping, but like going to the hardware store and DIY projects. I liked R.L. Stine books as a child, but could never get into The Babysitter’s Club, though I had been known to read a few Sweet Valley High books. So…what book might a publishing company recommend for me?
People are complex and children are even more complex as they explore their identities and try to pinpoint who they are and who they want to become. Labels are helpful and make parts of our jobs easier, but they can dehumanize and mask the personality nuances that could allow us to see the real child hiding underneath. The girl that loves to knit but watches sci-fi and likes weilding a handsaw. Or the boy that loves to read fashion magazines, watch Top Model, and is captain of his soccer team.
I attended an ALAN convention once and sought out an LGBT workshop. This is a passion of mine and has been since I started on this teaching journey. I want every child to feel welcome and comfortable in my classroom – not ashamed or afraid to be who he or she or ze wants to be. It was refreshing to hear that authors were moving from books with the expected LGBT themes of coming out to including characters who are amazing and complex and who just happen to be gay. We as educators also need to look for books like these. Consider titles that include diverse characters – diverse in race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. I’ve been thinking a great deal about these things as I have been charged with developing language arts curriculum and selecting books for the new international school I’m helping to open this fall. I feel a heavy weight of responsibility as I do this – not something I’m taking lightly – and something I’m seeking the help of others in doing because I know it’s dangerous to have one person make all of these choices. One person with biases, ideas, and perspectives.
So how do we do this? How does our language and how we label text effect the ways in which we help students (all students) learn and experience our classrooms?
I’m a proud proponent of technology integration in schools and I’ll happily talk about it til the cows come home if you let me. I’ve got all sorts of ideas about the opportunities for deeper learning afforded by many social media like blogs, Twitter, Skype, and wikis, to name a few. I could go on and on. But there’s one area where I feel like a total fraud…
I’ve always talked about wanting to make movies and digital storytelling projects with my students, but never had the chance to given resources in the buildings where I’ve worked. I secretly let out sighs of relief after learning this fact. Shame on me.
Even in my personal life I’ve limited myself to snapping photos here and there and taking videos on my digital camera. The videos have just ended up on my Flickr in their entirety. The idea of editing and piecing together something more cohesive just seemed beyond me and difficult.
But I’m happy to say that I have never been more wrong about something.
I’m doing work again for Powerful Learning Practice in a Program Administrator role. This is a great job because it allows me to work while collaborating with teachers around the world and I get to attend webinars with thought leaders around the convergence of education and technology. I’m there to work, but I always walk away with a renewed sense of inspiration about my practice as a teacher.
Such was the case last week. I helped moderate a session with teachers from Texas. Dean Shareski was presenting on video techniques in the classroom. He asked participants to take a video of themselves using the built-in cameras on their computers or devices they had with them and to upload those videos, each around 10 seconds, to his Flickr. In less than 10 minutes a page in Dean’s Flickr was populated with videos of teachers around Texas trying their hand at video making. Dean then took all the videos and edited them into a short.
After seeing the ease with which me and the other teachers learning in this session were able to tell short stories about ourselves in video, I was ready to try it on my own. I was inspired.
Dean shared a video he made using the 5 x 5 format, which involves telling your day in five, five-second video increments. It’s fun and gives people a taste of life in your shoes. I decided to try something similar using a terribly old camera – a point-and-shoot Canon Powershot that is around six years old. The camera records video in a fuzzy fashion, but it’s what I had at the moment.
Throughout the day I recorded snippets of my life here and there. I’d get the camera running, set it down, and record. I captured much more than five second increments and I knew I would have to edit the video to create a more clear story. I sat down with my memory card and proceeded to upload the videos from my camera into iMovie on my Macbook (it took a while for my computer to load each video even though they were quite short).
Once I had all the video clips in iMovie, I set about playing with the program. I’ve never even opened this program before this project. I learned how to play each video, right clicked around to see a drop-down menu of options, hovered my mouse over different buttons to get informational text (maybe this should have been a screencast…another thing on my list to try). As Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach often tells educators participating in PLP, we learn through playing and we need to give students and ourselves time to do that. Rather than get frustrated with not knowing the program right away or seeking out tutorials online, I just let myself goof around for a while.
Eventually I figured out how to edit a part of each clip (click until a yellow box appears and drag each side of the yellow box to the part of the video you want to clip). I selected five-second portions from each video and dragged them into the project window. I played it over and over as I added and edited, making little adjustments here and there.
Once I was satisfied with the clips (there were about 12), I needed to add some transitions. This couldn’t be any easier. You just drag a transition of your choice in between the clips where you want a transition and that’s it. You can make the transitions longer or shorter if you want, but I stuck with the default of .4 seconds. The last thing I needed to do was add a frame at the beginning and end of the video to give some information. I dragged a title screen to the beginning and one at the end, choosing a black background and adding my text.
Export the video and it’s ready to upload wherever. Not including the time I spent recording here and there during the day before, this whole project took me an hour – and that was without any experience in iMovie.
My point in writing this post isn’t to paint myself as some sort of tech savant able to catch on quickly – I’m not. My point is to show teachers that you don’t need to wait for someone to show you how to do these things. You don’t need a long in-service with tutorials. Just give yourself a small chunk of time to play around with a new technology. These days user interfaces have never been easier and more intuitive – you practically have to try to screw some of these things up. Hey, but if you do screw it up, learn from that failure and try again. And you don’t need to be an expert to know how to use these tools with your students. You’re an expert in teaching. Make sure your students know what you expect from them and decide what tools might help them achieve that and then let them loose. Allow them time to play, don’t stand in front of the room making everyone try each and every tool together. Be there to help and let students that have figured it out help the ones a little farther behind. It will be messy. No doubt about that. But you and your students will come out on the other side with highly transferrable skills and techniques to demonstrate learning. Plus, it will be fun. I promise.
And without further ado, I give to you A Quiet Day filmed in my still-very-new home of Breda in The Netherlands…
I’ve heard and read of people lately lamenting our dependency on technology, complaining about how “social” networks seem to alientate us from real life social interaction, etc. While I hear these things, I try not to listen. No matter how over-stimulated I feel, no matter how out of control my RSS reader gets (sometimes you juts have to hit “mark all as read” and move on), I’m still pretty stoked about living in this time.
One of my favorite things about the web and connectedness is the availability of tons of free software. Developers and programmers blow my mind. I have Program or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff marked as to-read because I am unabashedly being programmed. I don’t know much about how all of this stuff works – the stuff I sit down to use every day – but I would be lost without much of it. The authors of many of the free programs out there spend countless hours developing programs only to spend even more time answering questions in discussion threads, responding to tweets, making helpful screencasts, and addressing errors in the program with subsequent updates. They might request a donation here and there, but whether or not they get it they keep plugging on. I’ve started reading Seth Godin’sLinchpin on recommendation from my super-smart friend Amber Karnes. I realize that these software developers found problems or needs, figured out how to address them with a program, and set about spreading the answer freely. They weren’t waiting for someone to “pick them,” as Godin calls it. They went for it and boy am I thankful.
I’d just like to give a shout out to some of the rad software I’ve been using lately. All of this is available for free. A few of these have freemium options or additional things you can add on for a fee, but at their most basic they’re still great:
1. Calibre. I’d be lost without this program. With the many ebook devices, file formats, and files available, one can easily get overwhelmed. If someone wants to share a file from their e-reader device with you, but you only have a Kindle, you need to convert the ebook to a different format. How do I do that? Enter Calibre. With minimal input from you, the program will take a file and convert it to the format needed for your device. You can also download metadata like tags, book covers, author info, and organize your library. Another awesome feature is the news gathering option. Calibre will grab news from various sources and create a readable file from that online content you can send to your device. Oh, and did I mention it will grab all your Instapaper reads and send them to your device? Every time I turn around this program gets more awesome.
2. Anki. I had a little trouble figuring this one out, but thanks to active discussion boards with responses from the program’s developer and screencasts, I’m set. Anki is a spaced repetition system, which most people consider to be the best system for reviewing information in a flashcard setting. I won’t get into whether flashcards are helpful for truly learning info (there is a lot of debate about the “best” languge learning methods), but it’s something I’m experimenting with in my learning of the Dutch language. To oversimplify an SRS system, it uses algorithms to remember what cards you answered easily versus the ones you need help with and puts the ones that need review closer to the front of the deck. There’s an Anki desktop app, an online version (both free), and a iPhone app ($25) that will seamlessly sync cards and statistics. The program also supports non-Arabic characters and is popular among people learning Japanese. This is a reminder to myself that I need to be studying my Dutch more…
3. NeoOffice. Who needs Microsoft Office? Seriously. This program allows you to save documents, spreadsheets, presentations, in tons of different formats, including super old MS Office file formats. While I tend to use Google Docs for everything, and I recently found my Office for Mac disk, I still need something to open files that might be sent to me in formats my programs don’t currently support. Not totally necessary, but it’s nice to have if you want all the bells and whistles offered by the ubiquitous Microsoft Office suite of programs. NeoOffice is part of the OpenOffice.org project.
4. OmmWriter. This is a distraction-free writing zone program. Once you open it you’re given a clear space to write without pop-up notices or anything else happening on your desktop. Omm has an upgrade for which you can pay, but the basic is enough for me. I’ve gone a little analog with a traditional writer’s notebook for brainstorming ideas, but when I need a clear space to write a blog post or free-write and want to type, Omm is my go-to.
5. Evernote. Yeah, this is another one where you can pay for extra storage space and features, but I’m still below that threshold (most of my notes are text) and find its basic to be enough for my needs. Right now I’m using my new favorite screenshot Chrome extension to grab articles I’ve written online and save them to Evernote. My hope is to create an online portfolio outside of links, which can often go dead.
There are risks with using free, start-up, and open-source programs (the biggest being programmers can just stop updating them or companies can fold without notice leaving users floundering), but those risks are outweighed by the great things you can do with them. And there are lessons to be learned when companies fold – things we can teach students, such as “Don’t put all your digital content in one basket (program)” and the one I need to remind myself of often, “Backup your data early, often, and in multiple places.” We teach kids about time management and organizing their notebooks – here are those same lessons, digitized. Photo by vancouverfilmschool.
So don’t just sit back and accept the suite of products that comes standard on your computer (or on your school computer). There are people out there creating programs that can put the best productivity suites to shame. Schools should be considering these programs first before heading to vendors and spending astronomical fees on licenses.
While the preceding tools aren’t all deserving of the term open-source, I wanted to mention it since I believe the open-source movement to be one of the most amazing parts of the internet. People are creating software and content and telling others to “go, use it, copy it, do with it what you want and maybe in the end it will be even better.” There’s a community out there and a lot of learning and creating going on without any payback (Wikipedia comes to mind). This intrinsically-motivated community is happy to share with others and often asks for nothing more than a bit of hyperlinked credit. This community is an important thing to introduce to students and offers a lot of potential for educational institutions (hello, free software! goodbye licensing fees!). Isn’t this what we want from our students? To not even think about the grade or the points value or the damn rubric, but to create because it’s fun and can make a difference?
Not in The Netherlands it doesn’t. I’ve not had a great deal of exposure to Dutch work environments other than the few times I’ve visited the immigration office and the time I’ve spent with the curriculum team developing a new international school. Working from home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But even after a few visits to real workplaces, something is startling clear: Casual apparel is okay in The Netherlands, especially in the workplace.
In America, as most Americans can attest, your work attire is taken very seriously, particularly in offices. As a newspaper reporter I only dressed up when heading to a cushy office to interview someone and the rest of the time I rocked jeans and casual dresses. In a workplace where people (used to?) smoke and keep bottles of bourbon in their desks, this is an improvement. But when I became a teacher that all changed. I needed to “dress respectably to be respected,” as one principal told the staff during a meeting. Apparently dressing respectably meant skirt and pants suits like the administrators wore each day.
Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to begin training in the MYP curriculum. It was an all-day session that challenged me and my new colleagues to move away from our previous experiences as educators and think within this new curriculum focused on authentic, project-based learning and interdisciplinary collaboration. I’m still reflecting on the experience and writing about it, which I’ll share soon, but as invigorating as the experience was it was also a chance for me to chat casually with these teachers. Usually we’re cramming a lot into our meetings and have little time for chit-chat, but we had lunch together and tea breaks and I shared a lot about myself, the true outsider on the team, and learned more about them. Photo by semuthutan.
The most glaring difference I found while hanging out in the personeelskamer (teacher’s lounge) is that seeing people “dressed up” was a rarity. Now, these educators weren’t rolling into work in sweat pants, but here are just a few examples:
- Older gentleman in jeans, flannel shirt, suspenders, sneakers.
- Younger woman in cotton dress, tights, Ugg-type boots.
- Administrator in khakis, button-down shirt (no tie), and a houndstooth jacket.
- Younger man in khakis, loafers, and an untucked polo shirt.
It may seem that I’m being overly superficial, analyzing the wardrobe choices of the teachers I encountered, but it affected me so much that I knew there had to be a reason. I realized that this casualness toward dress code was indicative of something deeper in the culture of the school and the attitude toward the teachers. They are considered professionals and treated as such. It’s as if someone said “Yes, I know you’re a professional and I don’t need you to wear black pumps and suit pants to prove it.”
I met a young teacher who had the opportunity to do her student teaching internship in Pennsylvania as part of an exchange program. She said she was told she had to dress up and spent the first few weeks buying new clothes for the entire experience. She told me that in The Netherlands people dress down at work – wearing “work clothes” – and save their dressy attire for events and nights out. Makes sense to me. Teaching is hard work and I don’t know how many days I came home from my internship with my toes nearly arthritic from being crammed in fancy shoes for eight hours.
As a teacher in Virginia I’ve been frustrated with the discussions surrounding a potential ban on virtual communication between students and teachers. The state’s board of education is considering banning teachers from chatting with students on Facebook, Twitter, and through text messages. The reason? To protect the students. At first blush that sounds like a good idea. We all want to protect the students! But why would we want to protect them from their teachers? Yes, there have been the few cases of teachers and students sexting, but with nearly half a million teachers in the country that’s a small drop in the bucket. The education system paints with a wide brush and often does so to the detriment of innovation in our tired system. In this case, rather than deal with the inappropriate teacher-student relationships as they arise, the board is treating all teachers as potential predators than the professionals the majority of them are.
Yes, there are things online that I’d prefer students not run into – predators being the main one. But those dangers are everywhere, not just online. And to take away the one connection to responsible adults that kids may have in those spaces is truly irresponsible. Wouldn’t it be better for us to hold their hands crossing the road than to say “No, holding hands might lead to a sexual relationship, so we’ll just let the kid cross the six-lane highway. Alone.”
I’ve heard familiar gripes about teachers here – that it’s so easy and they get the summers off. Dream job! But overall the school culture itself seems to lead toward a mutual respect among colleagues and an understanding that no, whether one wears jeans or a suit doesn’t mean one is a better or worse teacher. Effectiveness isn’t tied to your tie. Leadership isn’t lost by leaving your collar unbottoned. Seems a little ridiculous when we think about it this way, don’t you think?
It’s small thing, but it means a lot. It has me wondering what other small differences might go a long way to change the entrenched culture of schools in America.
I’ve never been one to get into arguments over whether we should be teaching the classics exclusively in schools or if we should let some young adult fiction jump into the curriculum mix. It always seemed like a no-brainer and a waste of our time to argue the point, because to me if a student is reading she’s already in the game. I’m focused on getting kids to pick up a book in the first place. Once that happens, then I’ll tackle getting them to delve into Shakespeare or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
But, even though I’ve said these things and learned a great deal about the use of YA lit successfully in classrooms (my methods teacher during my licensure program was a big proponent of using YA lit), I’ve never really read any of it on my own. I’m not sure what was keeping me from cracking open one of these quick and often fulfilling reads, but I never had before this week. I taught a bit of Lawrence Yep to some sixth graders while working as a long-term substitute – we were reading Dragonwings – and Monster by Walter Dean Myers for my methods class, but that’s about it. My knowledge of YA lit was limited to big names like Laurie Halse Anderson and of course Harry Potter and Twilight. Then there was the mountain of YA titles. If I decided to read something, where would I even start?
A group of teachers I follow on Twitter instituted a #bookaday hashtag on Twitter where they would tackle reading, as you guessed, a book a day during their holiday breaks. I’m a slow reader and didn’t want to dedicate myself to a book a day since I would be planted on the couch for half of each day. Sure, I already do that sometimes since I’m not working (yet), but I try to avoid it.
One title I haven’t been able to avoid through tweets and blog posts is The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. I decided to read the first in the three-part series late last week and breezed through it. I felt that sense of wonder and suspense and connection to the characters, something I rarely experience in reading. The last time I felt this compelled by a book was my first time reading A Confederacy of Dunces. Something about Ignatius J. Reilly still tugs at my heart and leaves me thinking and I read the book nearly ten years ago. Sure, there are books I get into and can’t put down, but a true connection to a characters is something very rare for me in reading. I felt this with Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of The Hunger Games. I’ve only read the first book and am making myself read a “grown up” book in between this and the next part in the series. (I just started White Teeth by Zadie Smith, which given its nearly 500 pages of luscious wordsmithery means it will probably be a little while before I allow myself to tackle the second Hunger Games book Catching Fire.)
I don’t know why I feel this way, but even though Collins’ book is full of serious and teachable themes, such as the influence of reality television on our lives, poverty, and class struggles to name a few, I felt a little tinge of guilt in reading the book. I enjoyed it so much and it falls under that addictive category of young adult fantasy lit that I suppose I felt guilty about not challenging myself with a tougher read. But why do I feel this way? I can’t help but think this comes from years of education where the classics were elevated to royal status and only those that read them could feel proud and “well-read.” Beach reads, chick lit, fantasy, sci-fi, those were never considered “literature.” Now, don’t get me wrong. I definitely see a difference between The Devil Wears Prada and Ulysses – not everything is literature. But I hate the shame that has been tacked onto understanding the difference. If I feel this way, even after leaving high school nearly 10 years ago, how do our students feel?
There was a lively debate on The English Companion Ning recently about “kids reading junk,” and the junk being things like Harry Potter and Twilight. Sure, Harry Potter may not be comparable to 100 Years of Solitude, but shame on the person that sees thousands of children picking up and reading 400+ page books as a bad thing. Reading begets reading and results in learning. We all have our different avenues we ventured down that brought us to avid reading and very rarely were we pre-teens flipping through Dante’s Inferno. I got into serious reading (meaning I did it every day) when I started picking up R.L. Stine books. They were quick, thrilling reads and my 11-year-old self felt quite accomplished as I counted the number of “whole books” I’d read. From there, as I got older, I wanted to pick up “the classics” and read them. I purchased an old copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare and read “As You Like It.” I didn’t really understand all of it, but I was 15 and trying my best. Then I went on to Catcher in the Rye, considered one of the first YA books. I was mesmerized that this could be considered a classic – something with the same compelling characters I’d learned to love in all of that other “junk” I’d read as a kid. Holden Caulfield wasn’t battling an old ghost sent to kill the cheerleading theme, as was the case with many R.L. Stine books, but he was battling real things that I felt, like worrying about my younger sibling as I grew into role-model status and dealing with adolescent angst. I was hooked into how reading could allow me to escape and relate with characters while working through my own issues and it only grew from there.
I’m intrigued by the idea of teaching The Hunger Games. Eric T. MacKnight, an international teacher I follow on Twitter (@ericmacknight), has his students *read books independently and blog their reactions and analyses. One student’s response to The Hunger Games generated an interesting comments discussion. Check out the student’s blog response to the book and the ensuing discussion in the comments to see what I mean. There are so many avenues one could take, using the books as a jump-off point for projects and discussions. Communist regimes, poverty, class struggles, the increasingly public nature of our private lives, reality TV, even feminism. Katniss Everdeen is, by societal standards, quite a “tomboy.” How does her portrayal differ from female protagonists in other novels? What makes her strong? I appreciated that Collins wrote Katniss in this way because even though I am happy to see kids reading, even if it is Twilight, I can’t help but have a distaste for the boy-crazy damsel in distress portrayed by Bella in Stephanie Myers’s series.
I’m quite the novice when it comes to YA lit, but it doesn’t take a genius to see how these titles can be used as gateways to life-long reading and learning in the classroom and beyond. Thanks to my network on Twitter, I have a great resource of people well-read in YA lit I can turn to for recommendations, but a wonderful resource is the blog YA Lit – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly written by Sara Fuller (@yagoodbadugly). I’ve also been checking out the Goodreads shelves of Donalyn Miller (@donalynbooks), author of The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, which is still high on my to-read list.
If you’re a YA noob like myself, I encourage you to give it a spin and consider how you might work such a title into your curriculum. It’s not much of a stretch. I did a lesson in my methods class tying an Edgar Allen Poe short story to Monster through the concept of unreliable narrators and their effects on readers. It’s easy and you might just snag some of those reluctant readers.
* My apologies to Eric! I thought he taught the book in class, but it turns out one student just read it as an independent reading assignment and blogged her reactions.
On a recent trip to the grocery store I shyly approached a young man (probably a teenage boy) quietly stocking the shelves. I stammered out my best “Pardon, spreekt u Engels?” to which he replied “a little bit.” I let out a sigh of relief even though I knew the answer before asking – everyone speaks at least “a little bit” of English. I’d been in The Netherlands for long enough at that point to recognize a Polish accent when he spoke. I needed help figuring out what to do with my produce since a sign covered up the scale where I normally weighed my fruit and obtained my price. While this young man’s English language skills weren’t perfect, he still understood my question and gave me the answer I needed.
I was impressed, as I often am when outside the U.S., by this man’s skill in being a Polish immigrant to The Netherlands speaking enough Dutch to get him a job at a store and also speaking enough English to help me. This man spoke three languages. Maybe not perfectly or academically, but he still spoke three languages. This wasn’t some university professor who had spent time in another country or a young person privelged enough to attend second language lessons at a young age. This was a stock boy in a grocery store. Graphic by woodleywonderworks.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve found myself shocked by the second and third language skills of people in countries other than my own. In France a garbage collector was able to give me directions in a nearly perfect English accent. In my Dutch class there are students with native languages that make learning Dutch much more difficult than it is for me (Thai, for example), yet their tongues form the words and when they can’t get their point across they switch almost effortlessly to English. It’s in these moments that I realize my stereotype of multilingualism as a hobby of the elite is completely unfounded.
These moments shame me and inspire me. I am fluent in only one language – English. I attended a few private (and very low budget) Christian schools and graduated from public school where I was required to study Spanish. I also studied Spanish at university, but I can do little more than understand vocabulary words and simple sentences. Conversing is out of the question. I know very few people in the U.S. who are truly bilingual or even fluent in another language. The few people I know in America who are bilingual are so because they were raised in homes where English was not the first language spoken – not because their schools pushed them toward fluency in another tongue.
Research has shown us, time and time again, that the time in our development most ripe for language learning is at a young age, yet very few schools begin foreign language study at the primary level. On a recent trip back to America, I had a chance to grab a drink with a friend I taught with last year and we both lamented our inability to speak a foreign language and the daunting prospect of attempting to achieve fluency as adults. We felt jipped by our educations – like the people making the decisions didn’t think we were important enough to cultivate into global citizens. Unfortunately, part of the problem with foreign language education in the American public school systems is time. Students often have to take five or six classes each year just to graduate, leaving little time for in-depth study of a second language. And many students can graduate without ever having studied a foreign language.
America has put so much pressure on English and math courses as “most important” in the curriculum. Many of my students struggled with communicating clearly in their native English tongue and they were approaching 18 years old, so one might ask why we should even bother getting those students learning another language on top of English. We should do it because there is no better way to understand your native language than through the lens of a foreign one. I have never been so cognizant of English grammar constructions than when I started studying Dutch. I’m an “English teacher,” yet I’m continually learning about my own language as I learn a second one. To understand how the Dutch construct a sentence one has to understand how it differs from how sentences are constructed in your own language.
The lackluster foreign language education in America is breeding unilingual teachers like myself. The teachers who are bilingual (or multilingual) see the marketability of that fact and may reach beyond the borders of America for more lucritive and exciting careers in international education or opt for private schools that will compensate them for the rarity of fluency in a second language. Or they may skip over the prospect of education as a career since pay scales are set in stone and allow little room to compensate new hires for unique skills.
Dutch students are required to study not just their native language and English in school, but French and German. We put limits on the potential of American students by not pushing them to study two or more languages. Being able to speak a second or third language instills confidence in students and opens up new worlds to them, not to mention it helps to mold them into more global-minded individuals by allowing them to delve into cultures other than their own. While I hate the rhetoric about America “losing” to other countries in certain fields and studies, I would ask the leaders that make that argument as a push for standardized testing how they expect the students that score highly on those bubble tests to help America “win” if they can’t communicate in languages other than English?
I feel like I was done a disservice in my education by seeing foreign language study portrayed as an elective and being told “but don’t worry – everyone speaks English.” That may be comforting to the occasional traveler, but if we want our students to be able to go anywhere and do anything, as we so often tell them they can, then we have to put a heavier pressure on administrators and elected officials to appreciate and fund foreign language education.
One of the first things on my list of things to do after moving to The Netherlands was to get a library membership. If I couldn’t work right away, I wanted to at least take advantage of the time through reading. I ran into a brick wall of sorts when I realized the selection of English language books at the library wasn’t to my taste (I’m sorry, James Patterson). I was also taken aback by the fees, which include an annual fee of around 25 euro and a fee for each item checked out. I wouldn’t mind the fees if the selection were more appealing, but it wasn’t so I walked out the door and started to think of other ways to feed my reading cravings.
Buying books, even used, was out of the question because my partner and I are trying to save money wherever we can. I began looking at e-readers as an option given the amount of books one can save to them, the portability (shipping books from the states is breathtakingly expensive), and the endless selection. For many reasons I won’t detail here, I went with a Kindle from Amazon and have been delighted from the moment I busted it from its packaging.
Sure, it’s great to have an endless selection of books at your fingertips. And with the use of great, open-source software like Calibre, you can get news on your Kindle and convert different e-book formats to fit your device in one click. But as an educator I’m much more interested in the highlighting feature.
As a teacher I always encourged, and often required, my students to engage in active reading. I would ask them to take Post-It notes and, while reading, add them to a passage and include one thing on the note: a reflection, a question, a prediction, etc. This was a great way to check if students had done the reading for homework, but it also forced them to engage with the text in a more meaningful way. And it prepared them for the day’s discussion. As an aside, students that didn’t do the reading couldn’t engage in the discussion and had to spend that time reading the passage and noting while we discussed in a circle. With the advent of web highlighting and annotating tools (Diigo is my preferred choice), we can get students working virtually and reading not just their own notes but the notes of other classmates and people around the world.
The Kindle comes a highlighting and note-taking feature. I wasn’t sure I’d be using it, but along with the built-in dictionary it’s become one of my favorite parts of reading on the device. For example, the first thing I downloaded to the device was a free copy of “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde from Project Gutenberg. It’s a short and hilarious play (you can read my Goodreads review of it here) and I found myself wanting to highlight certain one-liners to remember and reflect upon later. Enter the highlight feature. You can view all of your highlighted and noted bits at once with the click of a button and the notes contain links back to the location of the passage. Often times in college I would highlight a passage in a textbook, but forget where I even made the note. The fact that Kindle gathers them all in one place is a bonus and the note-taking feature, should you take advantage of it, can help you as a reader add context to the highlighting lest you forget why you highlighted it in the first place (something that happens to me all the time).
While I use the highlighter often, I wasn’t sure when I’d want to add a note until I started reading “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. Even though I’m a vegan and already know a lot about the farming systems of the world, I’m learning a ton through this book and I’m being challenged by it. It’s in these moments that the active reader needs to take action or the moment will pass and the potential for deeper learning will be lost. I’ve highlighted quite a few passages that I’d like to revisit and plan on adding a few notes for context. Ultimately I want to blog and reflect on why I made the choice to become vegan and I think Foer’s personal reflections on his choice of vegetarianism parallel mine in many ways. The e-reader is making this a lot easier.
Oh, and I’m very easily distracted by all the Web has to offer, so the allure of the e-reader as a nearly single-use device was part of the reason I went for it. It’s also cheaper than an iPad and the screen is, for lack of better words, extremely readable.