October 22, 2007
I post my first set of grades tomorrow, and I know I’ve got a bunch of kids who are going to be sorely disappointed. I hate that the grades aren’t so much representative of intelligence, but of good work habits. The kids who follow directions, ask questions and seek my help, and turn things in on time have an A or B. The kids who turn things in late and don’t follow directions have C’s or D’s. The kids with F’s either haven’t turned in at least one major assignment or have turned every assignment in so late that they haven’t gotten passing grades on them.
Every student who has an F in my class failed to read at least one of the two required library books. Next 9 weeks, I’m going to set a halfway point deadline, by which they must have their first book completed. So I feel like many of those zeroes are partly my fault, as my deadline for both books to be completed was the end of the nine weeks. BUT many of the kids who are failing did not read a library book at all! Tomorrow, I’m going to try to target these kids in the library, and help them find books on their reading level and in their range of interest.
I’ve had so few successes with my freshmen so far, but I think I can say that I had one for our end-of-nine-weeks project. After researching Greek mythology, learning the epic heroic cycle reading excerpts from The Odyssey, and watching O Brother, Where Art Thou, comparing and contrasting the two, we wrote our own myths. First, I modeled this by filling in the epic heroic cycle chart with my own story, and then I showed my myth on PowerPoint.
I enjoyed writing my myth so much, it made me think I’d like to turn this Pristina story into a children’s book. But as always, I have a great idea, and then all the little details come crashing over me, give me a scared feeling in my stomach, and I abandon all efforts in favor of everyday duties and pleasures.
My students’ myths were SO good: the boys’ were invariably filled with gory battles, while the girls’ mostly ended with the main character getting married. Some were an amalgam of Disney movies and fairy tales, but others were completely original and genuinely entertaining to read. I hope it was a good writing experience for them. I tried to teach them to self-edit this time, which we’ll continue to work on throughout the year.
September 26, 2007
So my seniors have started working on their big projects for the year, a senior scrapbook. They’ll have ten reflections on senior year experiences, along with with ten pieces of memorabilia to physically commemorate those times. I’m trying to get them to polish the pieces, to work on building scene and character and theme, but I don’t know how successful I’m being. They turn in their first reflection Friday, so we’ll see. I’ve had them bring in rough drafts and fill out peer critique worksheets for each other, in which they pinpoint parts that need more detail, could use some dialogue, etc. Then today, we read a personal essay that had a really good example of setting a scene, and writing to a theme, and I had them revisit their drafts to build a scene more completely. The drafts I’ve read so far seem to be retellings of experiences with tons of random details. There’s no discernible theme, no significance as to why this event was important to them. I think the worksheets and reading example stories isn’t enough. I need to model some good critiquing. They seem to think that once they write something, it’s done. They haven’t yet learned the fine art of revision.
My juniors are preparing their final projects on The Crucible. I’ve just realized that my unit on this play will end up being six weeks long when it’s all said and done! Is that ridiculous or normal? We read most of the play in class, aloud in small groups, stopping at the end of each act to discuss and watch the Daniel Day-Lewis film version. I wanted to be sure everyone followed the plot. They wrote two small (although they thought they were big) papers at the end of Acts I and III. Now, they’re doing group projects. They chose from four options: a performance of a scene in the play or an original parody thereof, a talk show featuring prominent figures of the Red Scare of the 1950s, a debate over the possible explanations for the accusers’ affliction, or a presentation over the significant changes Miller made from fact to historical fiction. I’m torn as to how much I should help the groups: with my third-hour juniors, I was very hands-on. I was glad I was, too, because they’re a bigger class, and some would try to play Internet games or do random searches (and I mean random: I saw one for how to trap a squirrel), or just get off-task. So with them, I circulated and asked what their plan was, and helped where I could the entire time. With my last-hour class, which only has nine students, I pretty much let them work, and I think they’re going to be ready to present tomorrow. We’ll see how it goes.
What do you think: How do you teach kids to write a personal essay that has both sensory detail and a theme? How long should I spend on The Crucible? Should I require more at-home reading, to speed it along?
September 16, 2007
I’m not sure how reflective I’m going to be able to be this year…how the reflective teacher did it, I don’t know. By the time I get home, relax with my daughter for a couple hours, cook dinner and clean up, it’s past time to plan my lessons for the next day. I’m up until 11 or 11:30 doing that, and then I have to get bottles and pump equipment ready for the next day. Four preps is tough. Writing lesson plans is much like writing papers for my college classes: I dread getting started, but then I get tons of good ideas once I start, and end up thinking it was a satisfying expeirence. Unlike with writing college papers, though, sometimes my lesson plans succeed and sometimes they flop. So when I finish writing, I’m not done. I have to deliver it, and often after that’s done, I don’t want to look back. I feel like I only have time to look forward. I know this is the raison d’etre for this blog, but I just don’t know how I’ll find time to do this.
Looking forward to next week: I think I’m going to have to tighten the reins: Several of my classes became fairly chaotic last week, with too many kids going back to their lockers for supplies, needing to go to the bathroom during class, etc. I’m going to have to implement a system for this. I’m thinking they’ll get three bathroom trips per 9wks, and after that, it’s a Tardy. All trips to lockers after the bell rings will get a Tardy. I hate that I’m having to do this a month into the year, but better late than never. I’ll just have to be sure and do this consistently, and they’ll have to get used to it. I hate this; I’d rather trust them to be responsible, like in college, but they just won’t do it.
What an exhausting day it was, but it’s over. I met about 20 parents, I think. Our school holds the conference on a Thursday evening from 3 to 9 p.m., making an incredibly long day for teachers, especially newbies like me who get a lot of visitors. I had a parent who questioned the value of one of my writing assignments, and of course I thought of a good reply later: I’m not teaching these kids to analyze paintings, and how they relate to The Crucible; I’m teaching them how to think and communicate. I’m being as creative as I can to give them assignments I think they might get into, and this is the thanks I get. This parent’s son could easily be an A student, but he was on Academic Probation last week for simply not handing assignments in. When he handed in his first on-time assignment this week, it was an A paper. His dad seems to be opposed to the teaching of literature in our schools, and my principal had encountered this before, so he came in with the parents and deflected some of the criticism expertly by placing the blame on No Child Left Behind, testing, state objectives, etc. By the time they left, I think they thought George Bush was was the reason their son was failing my class.
I’m not a fan of parents who bring their students into the conference, either, I’ve decided. One set of parents brought both daughters into the classroom with them, and the daughter with the C grade (and D writing skills) looked as though she was on the verge of tears the entire time I listed her incomplete assignments, and was forced to defend my reasons for giving her a 70 on a writing assignment. That was definitely my most tense meeting, with a close second being the host parents of two foreign exchange students who seemed to think I was teaching a college curriculum to their students, who both have B averages, mostly because of late assignments and misunderstanding assignment directions. I could have pointed out that the foreign exchange student in my sophomore class is holding down an easy A average, despite the language barrier, but I didn’t.
August 31, 2007
My freshmen now have a good understanding of 10 of the Greek gods and goddesses, and we’ve started reading The Odyssey. We’ve only spent time in the text for two days, and the first day, I read the poem aloud while some volunteers acted out the action. Today, they read a section in small groups, summarized it for me as a class, and then we acted some more. I’m thinking that Tuesday, they’re going to read in small groups, and then they will direct the actors themselves, without my assistance. As it was today, I was putting so much effort into my dramatic reading that I couldn’t really monitor everyone’s understanding, and I feel like they need to tackle the poem themselves. My actors got a little bored, since I was reading their lines, and then waiting for them to chime in with their own version.
After finishing the poem, I plan to watch O Brother, Where Art Thou, completing a compare/contrast worksheet as we go.
So my seniors finished Beowulf today. We were both relieved, I think. Don’t get me wrong: somewhere between the groaning about the language, the confusion over kennings, and the scoffing at Beowulf’s supernatural strength, we had some good discussion about the nature of a hero, and of glory. They all also wrote their own boast, modeled after Beowulf’s, and some did an amazing job of making the ancient language and heroic tone their own. I want to give them a pep talk on Monday, telling them that the language was tough, but they beat it, and they should be proud of themselves. They’ve now read the original epic, and no one can ever take that away from them. We’ve got a four-day weekend, thank goodness.
Tuesday, we’re going to look back at the text and learn the concepts of personification, foreshadowing, and irony, all found in the poem. Pretty sophistocated devices for an illiterate storyteller, right?
Has anyone seen the 2005 film Beowulf & Grendel? One of my students has The Thirteenth Warrior, which also took inspiration from the poem. I’m wondering whether either of these is worth watching in class.
Here’s what I’m thinking for culminating projects for the poem:
- Write and illustrate a children’s book or comic book version of the story.
- Compare Beowulf to another epic, which probably took its inspiration from the poem. To provide specific details from the epic you choose, you’ll need to watch the film or read the book again, so you can include specific quotes and examples from both texts.
- Write the villain’s side of the story: In either a narrative poem of at least 40 lines or a first-person story, tell the story from the P.O.V. of Grendel, Grendel’s mother, or the dragon.
August 26, 2007
Wow, this week went by so fast! My kids had their first library day, which went well for the most part. I can already tell though, that the non-readers are going to have trouble focusing on reading and not visiting for 30+ minutes. Our bell work for that day was to look at a handful of quotes about reading and talk about them. Here they are:
Books let us into their souls and lay open to us the secrets of our own. ~William Hazlitt, 19th century English writer
A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul. ~Franz Kafka, 19th century German novelist
Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures. ~Jessamyn West, 20th century American novelist
The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them. ~Mark Twain, 19th century American writer
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. ~Francis Bacon, 16th century English writer, philosopher, and scientist
I heard several choruses of, “I don’t get, like, any of those!”But a few kids in each class stepped up with some good insight, and I segued into how reading is going to work in my classes. The previous teacher had a book list the students had to choose from, and they had to take a test in the library after. I’m letting them choose any book, or bring one from home, and allowing them to choose their final assessment format, which seemed to get them a little excited. Rather than taking the test, they also have the option of making a book review poster or giving a book talk in front of the class, both of which I hope will get other students excited about reading. A neighbor of mine gave me a shoebox full of Louis L’Amour books, which I basically just took to be polite, but lots of the boys jumped right on these! The library has a pretty good selection of them, but I had some new ones for them to choose from. I don’t think I have a single Louis L’Amour left in my classroom library! I really tried to single out the kids who just milled around the library aimlessly, and ask them questions about what they’ve liked reading in the past, and then find a similar, high-interest book. I really need to read more YA books; I couldn’t make a whole lot of recommendations, but when I couldn’t offer help, I tried to get another student to recommend a book he or she liked.
Monday night, I went into freak-out mode: No more opening activities and fun library day: Tuesday was my day to actually begin teaching! At around 11 p.m., I was still surrounded by open textbooks, novels, and staring at my laptop screen. My husband asked if I was going to be finished soon. “I could stay up all night and not be finished,” I told him, and I was serious. But, I got to bed by midnight, still mildly freaking out, but basically prepared to introduce The Odyssey, Beowulf, Ayn Rand’s Anthem, and The Crucible. Whoa!
I saved time by doing the same intro for the epics, The Odyssey and Beowulf. I gave a little bit of historical background on both, telling kids that we would have a test over this, so they should take notes. However, during my short lecture (It probably lasted seven minutes, tops), most kids just stared at me blankly. I have a feeling I’m going to have to model note-taking and then give them some quizzes before they figure out that taking notes is an important part of test preparation. Our primary activity for both classes was a worksheet from ReadWriteThink on the epic hero cycle. In small groups, kids filled in examples of epics with which they’re familiar (we talked about Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, etc., beforehand and I wrote them on the board). I was really surprised that some kids weren’t familiar with any of these epics, but they came up with some good alternatives: Shrek, Conan the Barbarian, and Batman. So freshmen and seniors did the same thing that day.
My sophomores are the easiest class: a group of 15 kids in which the leaders and the clowns are both interested in learning and achieving their best. To introduce Anthem, I used this great lesson plan about dystopia, also from ReadWriteThink, which uses The Matrix to help kids understand the idea of dystopia. To start out, the kids journaled on their idea of the perfect society, and what they would do to control its perfection. We had a great discussion on whether murder or banishment is appropriate to maintain the perfection, when the perfect society should not include killing. I introduced the definition of dystopia, and then we watched the scene from The Matrix where Morpheus welcomes Neo to “The Real World,” and explains how it got that way. We talked about how the Matrix fits the dystopia definition, and thought of other examples of dystopian films and video games. Then we read the first coupe paragraphs of Anthem, which really threw them for a loop. I wanted to witness the moment when they figured out that Equality was actually an individual, so I didn’t assign any reading homework the first night. I really liked how the reading went the next day in class. Kids read a couple pages silently, and then I had each group discuss the implications of different aspects of Equality’s world for their society: wearing iron ID bracelets, the evil of superiority, the transgression of preference, all learning past a certain age being confined to one place and one group. After some good discussion, I assigned the rest of the first chapter, about 15 pages, as reading homework. I really think everyone did it, too! I was thrilled with the discussion we had after the first chapter. Several of the kids said they wanted to keep reading when they finished, and I told them that the rest of the book is just as exciting as the second half of the first chapter. I’m really glad I chose this book as our first one.
Beowulf, on the other hand, is completely the opposite. We had a mini-lesson kennings the second day, but I don’t know, I couldn’t get them to understand the idea behind them. Very few of them could think of any good examples of kennings for nouns I put on the overhead, like a computer, a cell phone, a prom dress, a quarterback. I tried to give examples, like a kenning for love could be “heart-melt,” which I know is cheesy, but I was working on the fly here. They kept just thinking of two-word synonyms for the words, like “communications device” for cell phone. I kept trying to push them toward the poetic and metaphorical, like “thumb-bruiser” for cell phone (with all the texts, get it?), and some did, but about half seemed to be totally lost. Once we started reading the text aloud in small groups, most kids seemed to get totally bored. Like the sophomores, they’re reading in small groups, with each group in charge of tracking certain aspects: I’ve got a hero group, a villain group, a poetic devices group, and a Christian influences group. However, they seem to be focusing on making lists of examples for their aspect, and not getting an overall understanding or appreciation for the poem. I brought in a couple graphic novelizations of the poem, one by Gareth Hinds and a newer one by James Rumford, and we read corresponding sections from it after reading the text. It seemed like they understood the poem the best when I read a short section aloud, stopping every other line or so to dissect what was happening and the language being used. But I hate to spoonfeed them this way! Maybe after they have the example from me, they’ll know how they have to read a difficult work like this. I assigned them a 10-line poem modeled after Beowulf’s boast for weekend homework. They have to tell why they are worthy of their quest, using alliteration at least three times, and at least two kennings. I’m considering letting them hang onto their boasts for another day so that I can show them an example of my own boast, because I feel like I didn’t give them a good enough idea of what I want on Friday.
I think The Crucible is going well: we’re reading the play aloud in small groups, and stopping to discuss. After each group finishes, I give them a character they need to discuss, and then each group shares with the class. Also in this class, I gave them their first reading homework last week, and it seemed like most of them did it. One discussion group couldn’t come up with anything on their character’s role in the section assigned as at-home reading, so I know they didn’t read, but I think they’ll have to for the weekend writing assignment I gave them. They have to either write a character journal entry; an essay analyzing how one or two paintings on the pages of the play in our textbook represent characters, themes, events, or setting; a persuasive letter telling whether Rev. Parrish should receive a pay raise; or 20 lines of poetry about the play so far. We’re also watching clips of the movie version after each section that we read. The variation between reading in groups, small group discussion, whole-class discussion, and movie-watching seems to be keeping everyone engaged and understanding the story.
I was so proud of my freshmen on Friday! As an opener for The Odyssey, they researched a baker’s dozen of Greek gods and goddesses in pairs. I know they’re new at research, so I just gave them three specific pieces of information they had to find on their god or goddess: how he or she was born, what he or she is the god of, and one great adventure he or she has had. There aren’t enough computers in our library for every group to have one, so some were forced to consult, *gasp*, books! After a day and a half of in-class research, they gave group presentations to the class. I told them they had to be entertaining and original, so we had several groups do late-night talk show formats, one shy group did a great collage poster on Calypso, and another group did a live news broadcast presentation. Not everyone was prepared, and not everyone did research the way they should have, but I really think that everyone learned about the gods and goddeses, because they seemed enthralled to see their classmates presenting their work to them. After each presentation, I did a quick review and told them which piece of information they would be quizzed over on Monday. So Monday we’ll have a quick review quiz over all the presentations, and the kids will fill out evaluations on their partners’ contributions to the presentation.
Whew! There’s lots more I could talk about, but our lesson plans for the week must be turned in to the principal tomorrow morning, so I better get cracking! Plus, we were supposed to turn in three days’ worth of substitute lesson plans by Friday, which I didn’t get to finish, so I’ve got to take care of that, too! I have no idea what I’m going to tell the sub to do–I mean, if I knew I was going to be gone, I could easily think of some lesson plans that have to do with the unit we’re in, and are easy to supervise, but how can I write lesson plans that will be good year-round? Hmmm…
August 17, 2007
So I’ve got grades 9-12, and I can already tell my sixth-period seniors are going to be a rowdy bunch. They’re good kids, but it’s a bad time of day, I think. Right after lunch, right before P.E., you know how it goes. I’m wondering if I did the wrong thing today, though: We rushed through our starter activity a bit, and ended up with 20 minutes to do a survey that should have taken about 10. So some kids got a little chatty, and I found myself being drawn into conversations with them, not related to the survey. The ones who were being the most talkative will probably be some of my favorite students though: they were the ones grabbing books off my library shelf and asking to borrow them early, asking me if I’d read certain books, etc. It’s hard for me to not show them attention when they’re being so darn interesting and clever! I found out some interesting stuff in these conversations though: One boy has a tattoo commemmorating his brother who died (didn’t ask how), and another girl has twin baby girls! Most of the fun facts I gathered were indirect offshoots of questions about the survey, but I afterward I felt like I might have paid too much attention to the ones who I kept having to get on to for talking (not about the survey). I’ll have to work on pacing my lessons better, and making sure I keep them on task. A few of them who talk are ones who I know are smart, but some of the others really need some help, and just don’t want to work because it’s too hard. So I can’t cheat them by giving too much attention to the smart, funny kids.
First two days DOWN! And I think they went really well! I started out having them fill out student information cards: they wrote down their name, preferred name, e-mail address, average amount of time spent on homework per week, and three things they like to do. I would have liked a better method for learning names, but oh well. After I went over my expectations and syllabus (which lasted a bit too long, I think), we launched into our first learning experience, and it was a good one! I stole this idea from graycie about a year ago, and am finally getting to use it! We read this poem called Mountain People by Jo Carson, from her book Stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet.
don’t wear shoes,
don’t have teeth,
don’t use soap, and don’t talk plain.
They beat their kids,
beat their friends,
beat their neighbors,
and beat their dogs.
They live on cow peas,
fatback, and twenty acres
straight up and down.
They don’t have money.
They do have fleas,
and at least six junk cars in the front yard,
Well, let me tell you:
I am from here,
I’m not like that
and I am damned tired of being told I am.
~ Jo Carson
We talked about the shift in viewpoint at “Right?”, the staccato rhythm, and finally, the stereotypes. Then I said, “You know, just about every group of people has some stereotypes associated with them: things other people believe about you just because you’re a member of that group. What kinds of stereotypes do you guys see, as teenagers?” They were uncertain at first, but then they found their groove. Then I passed out a new version of the poem called “Teenagers Can’t,” with blanks beside all the “can’t”s and “don’t”s. They completed their poems in small groups and then volunteers read theirs aloud. They seemed to get a kick out of it, and there were some moments of brilliance in each poem. Then last night I took the poems from each class and combined the best parts to get one phenomenal class poem. Today I got to experience the payoff. They loved seeing their efforts typed up and on the overhead, and they recognized parts of their own poem. I told each class I was really proud of them, that I thought their poems were just as good, if not better, than “Mountain People,” and I do. I think my sophomores’ poem was my favorite:
can’t be quiet,
can’t be polite,
don’t have respect,
They stress over everything
And care about nothing.
They sleep too long and talk too much.
They know what they want and
Don’t like what they have.
They act stupid.
They do have long hair,
Dirty clothes everywhere,
High phone bills,
And nothing to do.
Well, let me tell you:I am a teenager,
I’m not like that
And I am tired of being told I am.
After we read their collective poem, I had them journal some things teenagers can do. We shared, and then I asked them how they can tell other people that they can do these things. “We can do it,” they said. And they can!