My first taste of YA lit

December 29th, 2010 | Filed under: teaching

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.


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Second language learning in America

November 8th, 2010 | Filed under: Opinion, teaching

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.

thank you note for every language

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.

Now, who wants to help me with my Spanish?


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Active reading with Kindle

October 28th, 2010 | Filed under: teaching, technology

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.


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But what about the rest of the kids?

October 1st, 2010 | Filed under: Opinion, teaching

Since I moved to the Netherlands in July, I’ve not kept up with much of the American news cycle for the mere fact that I can’t. We have CNN International over here and BBC in terms of televised, English-language coverage, and they both do a great job of making you realize America isn’t the center of the universe. But there’s something I haven’t been able to avoid and nor do I think I should even if I’ve moved to another country and that’s the documentary “Waiting for Superman.” While I should be thankful I’m not teaching in America at this vitriolic moment, I’m actually sad that I can’t stand strong alongside so many of the public school teachers I know who are standing up for students facing incredible odds.

I debated with myself whether I should even join the fray with a post about the documentary, which to be honest I’ve yet to see, though I plan on catching a screening while on a trip to America next month assuming I’m up for handling some teacher-bashing on the big screen. I read post after post by teachers and educators I follow on Twitter – nearly 30 heart-felt essays in less than a week on what it means to be a teacher and why Oprah, NBC, and others have got it all wrong. Some were angry in their tones and carried battle cries. Others threw their hands up in cynicism and recommended just closing the door and teaching. And some were defeated, wondering why, with everything they’re up against each day they walk into school, they have to defend their very existence to corporate America and celebrities. People have said so much already – why should I bother? But as Chris Lehman put it, I had to find the strength to write about this one. It’s important.

I’m a new teacher and my experience is limited, but if you spend just a week in the shoes of a teacher you will quickly realize they are not in it for the money or the summers off as some like to shamefully accuse. I’ll save a rehash of the plot of “Superman” since you can easily find reviews and summaries online, but while the director David Guggenheim of “An Inconvenient Truth” fame says he didn’t try to be pro- or anti-anything in the film, most analysis concludes that the film makes teachers and particularly teacher unions out to be a selfish iron wall in the path toward educational reform. Guggenheim is a great director and in filming the cruel lottery system of some charter schools, he succeeds in riling up his audience. You can’t help but be pissed off after watching even the trailer for the documentary.

Now, while not everyone has a memory of a teacher that changed their lives or truly inspired them, everyone seems to have a memory of a “terrible” teacher, one that was far past her prime and “should never have been teaching.” Maybe you’ve even worked with one of these teachers. The sort of teacher that is clearly burned out from working and grading and calling parents and confiscating cell phones and addressing dress code violations and seeing her students’ mug shots in the papers for hours on end only to be required to attend a “professional development” session on how to teach to a test, the scores for which will determine her employment. I don’t want to make excuses for mean or inappropriate teachers, but I feel that deep down most of those cynical, veteran teachers that have lost the spark are a result of the culture of our educational system that seems to snuff out creativity with every chance it gets.

I worked with a funny teacher last year who was on her way to retirement. It was her last year and she was quite vocal about how sick of the whole system she’d become (a luxury of being on your way out the door). She had wonderful lesson plans and ideas that she happily shared with the new teachers in the department and she told me once that “This is what I love to do and if they actually let me teach I’d do more of it.” At a going away party during the last week of school, this teacher, whom I considered one of the most cynical in the office, cried as she gave a short goodbye to our department. I can’t imagine the emotions she must have felt, the many students she taught over the years running through her mind, but I’m sure she wasn’t thinking “Damn, that was an easy gig and I got summers off!” There are people who really do enter teaching just as any old job after college, but most of them have run from the building screaming within the first few years. Teaching is a test of emotional and physical fortitude each and every day. Ask any new teacher like myself how many times they cried their first year and you’ll see what I mean. So to be accused of not caring enough about the future of our students to actually prepare them for the world ahead, of treating it like just another paycheck, is an incredible slap in the face. Oprah, you’re breakin’ our spirits over here.

Everyone is blogging and tweeting about this documentary and one of the few upsides to it all is that we have a chance to speak out and reach a larger audience. Of course if major news outlets chose to interview teachers alongside the wealthy business elite and celebrities that they seem to treat as experts on education our voice might be heard, but that’s yet to happen. The battle cries are good and well, but when debate reaches a fever pitch like this the details are often left on the floor like sad, post-parade confetti. And never have the details been more important. The problem with documentaries like Guggenheim’s is that they try to tackle an incredibly large and complex issue through a medium that can’t even begin to shoulder it properly. The last thing we need to simplify is the debate over educational reform as if one solution is the answer. There’s not one answer and even if there were it isn’t privatizing the public school system and handing it over to Silicon Valley.

Teachers aren’t napping during their planning periods (if they have them) and dreaming about summer vacation. They’re calling parents and counselors and planning lessons and giving thoughtful feedback to students – and they’re doing it all knowing they may never see the fruits of their labors. My mother told me once when I came home crying last year from a tough day of teaching that as a teacher I may never see the life I’ve changed or the spark of inspiration I planted in a student – that my impact might not bubble to the surface for years after that student leaves my class. So you see, teachers do all of this for a future they may never know. This isn’t our future we’re talking about, as Sir Ken Robinson puts it, but the future of our children. We won’t be there to see what they build upon the foundation we lay, but they will and it’s important that we try to get it right.

An upsetting result of the Oprah effect on the education debate is that people questioning the main points of “Superman” are seen as the “old guard,” or worse, as people threatening the future of our children to prop up teacher unions. Some say we should speak out and fight for a seat at the table, others speculate that joining a fracas that will no doubt be old news in a few weeks just distracts us from the truly important job of educating our students. Somehow we have to be heard while not losing focus. Good thing teachers are skilled masters at multitasking.

My biggest question right now: What about the rest of the kids?

What about the rest of the kids that don’t find a spot in a fancy charter school, as “Waiting for Superman” documents? What about the kids that don’t have parent activists at home to speak on their behalf? What about the kids who don’t have parents at home at all? What about the kids that have never used a computer? What about the kids that don’t know how to read? What about the self-contained kids in special education departments? Who will advocate for them?

I know we mythologize and romanticize teachers as heroes for our children and that sometimes there are just plain bad teachers with poor, ineffective methods out there that need to be reckoned with. But for the most part teachers are there for a reason other than the paycheck and the well-deserved perk of having part of the summer off. They’re there because they know that there are children out there for whom no one will advocate. They’re there because they see their communities faltering and children joining gangs in an attempt to be a part of something resembling a family.

I worked with a teacher who had a great rapport with my students, especially the many boys I taught. He would often joke with them “You guys are never absent ’cause your parents don’t want ya’ll at home!” And we would all laugh and the students would trade jabs with him, but the truth of the matter is this: school was the only place they had to go. Sure, a few of them had a home life we would consider normal and well-adjusted, but for the most part there was something other than education driving them to that school building every day. The comfort of a friend group that is like a family and the strange comfort of a teacher who disciplines them, believes in them, and pushes them because she knows – absolutely knows – that they can do better. That’s what public education affords those children – the ones left behind after charter school lotteries and private school enrollments.

Charter schools are not the silver bullet or the superman we need. Neither is merit pay. Teachers need more support and relevant professional development than ever before – they need room to grow and learn with their students. Teachers need administrations that will support those efforts and work as allies and not as adversaries carrying test scores and breathing down their necks.

I’m just one voice among many trying to be heard in this debate. I encourage you to read some of the pieces that inspired me this week. You can do so by checking out my RSS feed of Superman-related links.


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Close of school business (and reflections)

June 6th, 2010 | Filed under: personal, teaching

I wouldn’t say the last year has been the ideal experience of a new teacher, but it has certainly shown me a diverse population of students, given me the chance to try different techniques, and taught me more than anything else to roll with the punches.

I started this 2009-2010 school year as a student teacher in Virginia Beach working with ninth graders in a Global Studies and Foreign Languages Academy program at Tallwood High School. They gave me the chance to cut my teeth with them on challenging world literature. We slogged through Tu Fu and Jorge Borges together and came out on the other side feeling pretty damn proud of ourselves. But like all things, my time with them came to an end in December along with my teaching certification program.

It was time for me to move on to something new, but what? It was the middle of the year and school systems were cutting positions not hiring. I decided to fall back on my freelance writing and editing work and hope for substituting gigs. Little did I know that another door was opening just as I was getting into a routine.

Along came the sixth graders at Ruffner Middle School’s Young Scholars program, a gifted education program in Norfolk. It was an amazing, long-term substitute opportunity and I snatched it up. I taught reading, writing, and early American history to 38 children that renewed my optimism and excitement about teaching even as they challenged my remaining threads of patience. They were so curious and opinionated and intelligent and they really had no idea of any of it. I went into the job thinking it would renew my feelings about the age group I wanted to teach, but instead they opened my mind and had me thinking “Sixth grade is pretty great. I wouldn’t mind doing this for a while.” I feared teaching history. I love history and enjoy consuming it on my own, but I’d never considered myself a history teacher until this job. Now I have a history endorsement on that list of goals in the back of my mind along with those other lofty ones (master’s degree, publishing articles, etc.). I’d planed to teach the sixth graders as long as the school would have me, but Virginia Beach called again and wanted to interview me for a full-time, contract position teaching core 11th graders. I got the job and it was time to move on again.

One of my sixth graders warned me “You think we’re crazy, Ms. Worrell? You’re gonna miss us once you get with those 11th graders!” I laughed it off. I wanted to teach high school and this was my chance to work with yet another age group and learn more about my strengths and weaknesses. But in that first week my little sixth grader’s ominous warning echoed in my mind. I felt I’d been thrown into a lion’s den of hormonal teenagers ready to claw their way through me to get out of high school. Gone was the feeling of being a learner alongside them. They saw me as an adversary and I wasn’t sure how to reach them – or if I even could. It was a Herculean struggle, but I’m happy to report that I have come out on the other side learning more than I ever thought I would in a contract only three months long. The eleventh graders (the large majority of them boys) taught me so much about classroom management and patience that I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I taught The Great Gatsby, a book I myself hated in eleventh grade, and learned to love it. Even more exciting – I watched students learn to love it. I didn’t have my own classroom, so I was forced to drag a cart around between rooms and classes, teaching me the value of obsessive organization. Along with my four blocks of eleventh grade, I also had a block of core ninth graders whom I taught The Odyssey and Romeo and Juliet - stories I knew but had never really given close scrutiny.

And more than anything, my experience with my first contract position gave me a taste of what I really want in an English department – co-workers that are great friends and colleagues depending on what the situation demands. The English department at Green Run High School is a motley crew of large-hearted, loving teachers that want nothing more than to see one another succeed. If there ever was tension among teachers in that department, I never noticed it. I felt I could approach any teacher with advice on lesson plans or for ideas on teaching a certain story or book. It’s a supportive and collaborative department and I’m sad I’m not going to be there next year. I have never laughed so much at work.

I’m starting another chapter in this whirlwind year, but I’m hoping to settle down with a teaching position where I can teach students from beginning to end, on my own. I’m moving to The Netherlands in July to pursue a career abroad and to expand my experiences in an international environment. I’m excited about teaching students from a completely different culture than my own and watching those same light bulbs go on in their minds. I’ve daydreamed about what it would be like to teach The Great Gatsby to a group of non-American teenagers and to make connections about the American Dream to their own dreams – are we that different?

So, I’m off again to search for a teaching job – this time in a country not my own. I’m hopeful and optimistic and just as inspired as when I started.


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The experience of the long-term substitute

March 4th, 2010 | Filed under: teaching

As someone that completed a licensure program mid-year and came out on the other side to a job market like this, the prospect of finding a contract position was slim. I was lucky enough to have great recommendations and found a challenging and interesting long-term sub position with a gifted program in the city of Norfolk. I’ve been teaching 37 sixth graders in reading, writing, and early American history. I have always loved history, but was thrilled at the opportunity to teach it. And I think therein lies the biggest challenge and greatest reward of being a substitute.

You’re thrown into a classroom where the students know one another and you know none of them. A classroom where another teacher has been running things the way he/she finds best, but which may not mesh with your own ideas. A classroom where the students may have been bouncing around from sub to sub, rarely feeling structure, and most often feeling lost. A vacuum, really, where you are tasked with quickly plugging up the hole before all management and structure are sucked out into oblivion.

It’s hard and lonely at times. You get a crash course, if you’re lucky, from the permanent teacher who, hopefully, had time to prepare some plans for you. More often than not you are left with a pacing guide and a classroom far behind where they should be on that district-mandated time line. I was lucky enough to have the teacher I was subbing for available by phone, text and email whenever I needed her. Not everyone is so lucky.

You’re spending so much time planning that the pile of grades continues to mount, yet you, in your new teacher fervor, have helped students create numerous artifacts and homework assignments, all of which you (surprise!) have to grade. At some point. Soon.

But your biggest resource and shoulder to lean on when you’re feeling out of sorts, I’ve found, is the kids. I have a number of “helpers” that are quick to tell me how Mrs. X did things and where they are in a certain class.

I have a license in secondary English education, so I can teach grades six through 12, but I’ve always felt my talents would be best utilized in a high school. I never expected to teach sixth grade, but I am grateful I had the opportunity to do so. It confirmed my feelings that high school, particularly ninth grade, is where I would like to be, but I will probably change this as the years go on and my experience as a teacher grows.

So for those of you feeling lost or frustrated with the job market and bouncing around as a substitute, enjoy it. You have the chance to be placed in another teacher’s room and learn your way around it, finding his/her personality and philosophies in everything you see and touch. It’s like having an ethereal cooperating teacher there, but not there.

I was supposed to be in this long-term sub position for six weeks, but I’m cutting it short thanks to being hired with Virginia Beach City Public Schools to teach ninth and eleventh grade English. My sixth graders are sad and my heart aches a little at not seeing their unmatched enthusiasm and energy every morning, but they were so happy for me. They understood that my role was as a temporary teacher, helping them learn until Mrs. X returned. I’m hoping to carry some of that energy with me to the eleventh and ninth grade classrooms I’ll be entering in March, an experience that will bring a whole new set of challenges with it, of which I’m nervous and thrilled to be facing.


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Truth in a post-Citizens United v. FEC world

January 24th, 2010 | Filed under: Opinion, teaching

CB022158I’ve tried to write this post a couple times, but I became so frustrated I had to backspace myself to zero and take a break. Rightfully so, most media outlets have been consumed by the death and destruction in Haiti to put this story on heavy rotation, but it hit me like a ton of bricks of dirty, corporate money and I’ve been trying to find a way to vent constructively about it.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this past week in Citizens United v. FEC that the government cannot ban political contributions by corporations in candidate elections. The New York Times did a great job explaining the story when it broke and there are a number of more in-depth articles and editorials on the far reaching impact of this decision from both sides of the aisle. I particularly like this one by David Kairys on Slate who calls the decision “misguided” saying “money isn’t speech and corporations aren’t people.” The short explanation is now corporations and organizations can give as much as they like in an election or buy as much airtime as they like. On the one side, people (mostly Republicans) say this is a win for First Amendment rights and free speech, calling the previous limits on corporate spending during elections “censorship.” On the other side, people (mostly Democrats), including the President, say it’s a win for corporations and special interests that want to keep their grips on the decision-makers in Washington.

At the risk of stating the obvious, business is a crucial part of this country and its people, but I think it too often weasels its way too far into public education. And with this decision business will have even more control over our government and in turn over those that make the decisions on education. But really, the money isn’t what I’m most worried about. Those decisions are far above my pay grade…especially considering I don’t even have a teaching job yet.

While driving down the interstate, I was listening to NPR coverage of the decision (you can listen to the same story here)). Rep. John Boehner, house majority leader and supporter of the decision, downplayed worries that it would make it more difficult to tell who and what corporate entities are backing major candidates in elections.

“Sunshine really does work if you allow it to,” Boehner said.

That may be true, but what percentage of the voting population is able to determine where money is coming from? And how many care enough to do so? There are great organizations and resources out offering services like searchable databases of campaign contributions, but often the people that visit are already those discerning, thinking individuals, or cynical ex-reporters like myself. What about those that want to care but don’t really know how to uncover the truth on their own?

My cooperating teacher had a great saying that she used often when we would eat lunch during our planning blocks, feeding our stomachs and our news addiction with CNN: “Only 5 percent of the population thinks,” she’d say. “The other 95 percent waits for someone to tell them what to think.”

Right now it’s even more important that we as educators focus on helping our students learn how to learn. They need to be able to answer their own questions without waiting for someone to tell them what to think because, more often than not, it will be a special interest-funded politician or extreme talking head (Glenn BeckKeith Olbermann…I’m looking at you guys). While at the annual NCTE convention in November, I had the pleasure of attending a great session with Kelly Gallagher. He talked about a lot of things, but one of his stories stuck with me about a student that wanted to know who “this Al guy” was that everyone was talking about…she was referring to Al Qaida. This student was getting ready to enter the world as a young voter and her knowledge of current events in this post-9/11 world clearly disturbed Gallagher as it did everyone else in the session.

“I want my students to know what a politician is saying,” Gallagher said. “But also what he’s not saying.”

And I think that’s the difference. Our students will need to be even more ready to think, discern and read between the lines. Politicians are the same now as they were a hundred years ago, I’m sure, but we have even more power to educate ourselves and demand that sunshine Boehner says works so well.

So, is it about free speech or is it about protecting democracy? To me, those issues are one in the same. The bigger issue is the background noise this adds to an already confusing system where two parties, glutted with corporate and special interest dollars, fight for 51 percent of the vote. Where does education fit into this decision? Trying to find the truth in politics seems daunting enough for me as a young voter, so I’m wondering how I will help students sift through it all?


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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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