SummerSummerSummertime!

I promised that I would keep this blog active over the summer break and alas, the weeks have escaped me!  I am working on some educational, PLC related posts (promise), but until then here is an update and some things I’m already looking forward to in the next school year.

  1. Part of my hiatus from this blog is the good news I shared at the end of last school year: my partner and I are expecting our first child in October!  So while I thought I’d be conquering the world during my time off, I’m instead building a small one. We couldn’t be more excited.
  2. After telling my students, they immediately started a pool of baby names, none of which are in the running. However, I’ve realized that my student very much understand who I am; top baby names emailed or pooled were Veidt, Manhattan, Thor, Toni, Calvino, Murakami, and Shakespeare.  (Spoiler alert: we’re expecting a boy.)
  3. I have spent a lot of my summer in a partnership with the Smithsonian American Art Museum building a teacher guide for Visual Thinking Routines in the classroom.  I’ll post more soon.  I’m over the moon about how much of my summer has been spent in that beautiful space.
  4. My reading list is a hodgepodge of genres (a later post coming), but the big surprise is my new found love of James Islington’s Licanius trilogy.  I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel to appear in my library que.  Aruably the best fantasy fiction I’ve read in some time.  I was also surprised of the artistry in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant was something I picked up on a whim and halfway through bought my own copy.
  5. I’m so excited to teach Future Fiction again, especially in the year that HBO releases a sequel to the novel, Watchmen. Let’s see if Lindelof can redeem himself from the Game of Thrones disaster.  Either way, what a great year to teach Moore’s Watchmen and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in the same class.

There is my quick update.  I write from my back patio, watching squirrels chase each other.  While I’m enjoying the serenity of the moment, I can’t help but feel anxious to be back in the classroom.

Ah, the paradoxes of teaching.

Have Atwood, Will Discuss

31DHh31Hg5L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThree years ago, I replaced George Orwell’s 1984 with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in my Future Fiction course; three years later, and the novel carries more cultural currency today than its 1985 print.  Atwood’s narrator Offred is captured by Gilead, a Puritan totalitarian territory situated in what was once Harvard University.  As Offred learns to navigate her new surroundings, the reader must confront the awful truth: every woman in Gilead is property- they are forbidden to read, to have income, to work outside the home- and the toxic aftermath of war has left many women infertile (because in Gilead, men are never presumed infertile). Because her ovaries are healthy, Offred is forced to become a handmaid and assigned to a couple; Offred is meant to serve  Commander much like Sara’s handmaids in the Bible.  Offred will bear child for another woman; her uterus is  an offering, if you will.

When I introduce Offred to Madeira students, many of them see the novel as a cautionary tale, an imagining of what could happen.  This year,   the sexual allegations against Kavanaugh were made public midway through the novel and class that day felt more like a realistic view of status quo.  As a teacher, the Kavanaugh confirmation is exactly that- a realization that so much more still needs to be done.  It isn’t about politics and it isn’t about a president.  It’s recognizing that in many ways, society is still trying to protect women by disarming them.  On one hand, our society has recognized that gender constructivism in children’s toys constricts their expression of identity and yet on the other, we have a political system that turned what should have been a informed, patient investigation into affirmation that calendars are enough to make liars of women. Calendars.

So much of teaching The Handmaid’s Tale has become an acknowledgement of male privilege and the realization that more still needs to be done.  Regardless of political party affiliation, many women today feel similar tensions articulated in the feminists movements of the 1980s; many young women feel the tightening grip of a still male-dominated world.  It was in this vein that I accepted an invitation from the Gonzaga School to host a symposium of female readers from Madeira in dialogue with the male readers of Gonzaga.  Our discussions were lively, our students were impressive, and I felt progress not so far away as I meandered around the room: “The problem isn’t that Offred is female; the problem is how society codes femininity” explains a Madeira student, “to be feminine is to be weak, to need protection.  Any other behavior is met with double standards and negativity.”  I see the Gonzaga students nod in agreement, “We [men] need to say this too.  We need to say these things because we are the ones who can.”

These young men are right; for now. I leave knowing at least there is a younger generation of men willing to call themselves feminists.  And for now, that’s a step in the right direction. After all, as Atwood reminds us, “Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.”

 

 

 

Rhetoric, Reflection, and Scholarly Titles: How Taking a History (and Poetry) Course Can Remap Your Courses

I firmly believe that in every teacher, there is a student eager to return to the classroom.  I see in my colleagues the same eagerness in choosing their PD (professional development) as I feel when taking a new class.  We are innate learners and we learn well.  It is in this spirit that I elected to take two courses as my PD.  It is in this spirit that I chose a course to refresh my history and a course to invigorate my love of poetry.  It is in this spirit that I realize I have fundamentally stubbled into some powerful realizations, beyond the affirmation that taking a class, even an online one, is a great PD option for any teacher.  (I took mine with the Harvard Extension School; I’ll be happy to share the application process with anyone interested.)  While I could write long, lengthy paragraphs about each of these realizations, I also understand that the average student (teacher-in-training) may only survive four paragraphs to a blog post about someone else’s PD experience.  So, in this spirit, I’m sharing a more “interdisciplinary epiphany”: if you want to teach empathy, begin with history.  If you want to train civil rights champions, give them art. If you want them to understand empathy and logically argue about its necessity in our everyday world, temper this infusion of history and art with the sciences.

Allow me to explain.

The history course selected is titled, “From Nat Turner to the Roots: Slavery and Civil Rights in America.”  My selection of this was pragmatic: it’s been a while since I visited the historical contexts of African American literature.  Last year, in the middle of restructuring the junior modules, Dr. Keith Ward and I thought it fitting to pair rhetorical analysis in the Slavery to Civil Rights component.  So much of the rhetoric of that time-period is impossible to divorce of historical context.  Taking this course was a great way to refresh my own memory and improve the content delivery for many of the 11th grade English modules.   In that way, the course was very successful; in a completely different way, it fundamentally re-shaped how I want to teach cornerstone abolitionists and civil rights texts.  The course forces students to re-analyze the Civil War in terms of collective belief and community rhetoric; in this examination, much of the narrative of the Civil War is controlled by an archaic, protected Southern ideal (much of which is couched in the “the war was also about state’s rights” arguments found in many past and contemporary pieces).  This controlling narrative, this push to re-frame the Civil War in terms of a disagreement about economy or about the over-reaching federal government has become a way to continue avoiding difficult conversations concerning racism in our country today.

I think in another life I would have been a history teacher.

How does this all relate to an English classroom?  Some of my focus this year has been justifying the rhetorical additions based on an AP Language exam and giving students experiences to master this skill set.  After taking this course, I’m realizing this is the wrong focus.  Instead, I want to help my students understand how and why rhetoric is necessary to battle injustice, to create narratives that are true, genuine, and empowering.  Frederick Douglass wasn’t just speaking about his experience as a slave; he was risking his life to tell the truth, to force a nation into confrontation, and reveal the hypocrisy of a promised ideal.  So much of Douglass’ vernacular is found again in Lincoln’s rhetoric; the transference of knowledge is evident in the changed rhetoric of both men post meeting.  That’s how effective rhetoric is it can bring a nation to war and unite it again under different terms, simply by sharing words.  In many ways, the documents surrounding the Civil War- political cartoons, speeches, newspaper articles, photographs- are incredible real-world examples of how rhetoric is an important part of cultural currency, citizenship, and literacy.  I hope that re-working some of my own lessons and assessments becomes a way for my students to understand the very real implications we face as a society when we stop questioning a narrative, when we take an argument at face value, when we stop asking questions and responding to our world in words. This course not only affirmed my own faith in the power of rhetoric but forced me to evaluate the effectiveness of delivering that same affirmation for my students.

Even more so, I’m more motivated than ever to create spaces in my schedule to write.  Company is welcome. (Email me.)  And if prose isn’t your forte, ask me about my poetry class.  Just bring your good pen.

 

My new crush is a Team Effort

I make no secret that I am a technology fan: OneNote has been an integral part of my classroom for four years. It is the best tool I have to grade, share material, and demonstrate good writing.  And, while I might have the occasional student who loathes most technology (except the cellphone), most of my students love the ease of the application.  I too love OneNote.   And then I met Microsoft Teams.

Last year at ISTE (the International Society of Technology) 2017 Conference, Microsoft previewed their program Teams.  It’s a software platform that combines OneNote, Planner, Cloud, and the Microsoft Office Suite.  I knew I would love Teams; I had already started learning Microsoft Planner.  As a natural list maker, Planner easily integrated into my work day.  However, the software is a bit limited; it’s still just an agenda built for individual or team use.  Teams, however, is built for whole classroom integration.  The Planner add-in allows anyone enrolled to assign tasks.   With that integration,  I knew instantly that Teams is how the school newspaper will get done this year.

I’ve been on the hunt for something to match the hurried, somewhat organized, fast paced, year round (ish), task based newspaper classroom.  We tried just using OneDrive; file management felt tedious.  We tried OneNote last year; it felt clumsy and just not innate to the many tasks editors had to navigate.  (InDesign is just not friendly with OneNote, even as a storage locker.)  Teams looked just right. Capture76

AgendaI implement the software last week.  I’ve already had six students ask me how they could use it for other classes and clubs.  Some just want the Planner add-in; my assistant editor is a list fanatic and is already scheming how to use Planner.  I can’t blame her.  It’s also my favorite function.  Pl2For newspaper, assigning articles and jobs outside writing is suddenly easy, organized, and visually pleasing.  Within each task, you can start conversations; since I share newspaper with another teacher, this is often a great way to check in when not in the classroom. For example, while the layout editor creates the new master document for the new paper, I can communicate with her via checklist or the comment function about that task.  In turn, she can check them off the list.  Screenshot (2)The tabs for each task help students prioritize; I’ve labeled ours according to issue and time.

Teams also has an instant chat function.  The girls can communicate with each other while in the field.  Even more so, because the class doesn’t meet December through February, it gives the students a space to continue building community and sharing ideas.  I’m also realizing what a great tool this will be for our spring editor.  The paper shifts leadership with a new editor in spring, and I have high hopes Teams will allow for a more seamless transition.  It will definitely allow for better record keeping.  Capture4.PNGOne of our headaches from last year was locating files from previous issues, other editors, last year…it just seemed that every editor preferred a different way to name and store files.  Teams solves that right away; it has a file function built into the platform.  The students can create folders and upload files right in the application. Of our current files, I created one; the editors have taken over, something I’ve loved to see for some time.

I will admit right now that the students learn faster than I do.  Quite frankly, they need to: this is their publication.  I’m thrilled that Teams has been the vehicle pushing them into ownership.

I’m not sure this is class ready;  it doesn’t quite match my English classroom structure.  I’ve started to think about how the chat function could be instructive rather than the distracting thing I’m sure it will become.  I’m also keenly aware that many students can repel away from technology overload.  If I ask them to use their OneNote, upkeep their planner, and then upload files, it feels a little like overkill. I’m not sure the agenda won’t just feel like a tedious task; many students are assigned one thing unlike the newspaper.  OneNote also allows for individual spaces; Teams is very much a collaborative environment.  So while I’m currently enjoying my new crush, OneNote and I are still in love.  At least, when it comes to my English classroom.

In the meantime, I’m thrilled to see newspaper crushing on Teams as much as I am.

 

 

What to Really Do for the First Day Of School: a List for the Practical Teacher

IMG_20161213_155131 - CopyEvery teacher I know is playing their first day out- whether with the experience of last year fresh in mind or the optimism of the very first year ahead.   I quite enjoy the anticipation; it forces me to reflect on last year’s good intentions, last year’s “what worked and what did not work” so to speak.  I’m also a goal-orientated educator; articulating objectives or reflecting on past practices helps set the tone for the year ahead.  And, since I have a captive audience, I’m adding my list to the millions of other posted lists about the first days of school.  Only this list is the real list; the list of things you most need to do.  After twelve years of teaching, this is the list that works for me.  

  1. Eat breakfast. Even a small one.  This may sound like practical advice more than teaching advice.  Eat breakfast.  I spent many a school year running out the door without something in my stomach.  I spent many a school year wondering why my mornings just didn’t run as smoothly as my afternoons.  The one thing I did last year that change everything: breakfast.  Even if it was on the go, I had something prepared in my stomach every day.  Soon, I was up early so I could eat breakfast which means I was in my room a little bit earlier and I was in a great mood to attack the day.  It’s the same for students as it is for teachers- a little breakfast goes a long way.  Before I knew it, I was a morning person.  This year, I was gifted a kerig machine for my classroom and I’m tempted.  Very skeptical, but tempted; after I do number 3, I may add it to my classroom tech arsenal.
  2. Have templates, will use.   My teacher mentor from years ago gave me one of the best gifts: a collection of templates.  Have a student who has been absent and needs a reminder to check in? I have a template for that email.  Need to contact a parent about a student update? I have a template for that email. Need to update class on snow day make up work? I even have a template for that email.  Figure out what you need for the year and create those before the first day.  Leave room to make them personal (I do not make templates for feedback or comments in a gradebook) but efficient. I have a template for the first email to all parents that I modify depending on the year.  I use my absent student one all the time. Keep these electronically; mine live in my OneNote Teacher notebook in word doc form.
  3. Clean your room.  I sound like my mother who insisted that you really couldn’t do anything in a messy environment.  She’s right; last year I opted to clean my room before leaving for the summer.  I really spent time thinking about how the space was used (turns out I don’t need an extra bookcase for supplies) and how I want it to be used (I moved the lending library near the door- students grab and go with ease).  I eliminated the need for a desk two years ago; it just seemed to be a collection of things I didn’t want anyway.  Now heading back, I’ve got some leftover supplies from my summer class that need a home.  I’m excited to clean the department supply cart (a solution we came up with after declaring that no one wanted to keep the same supplies in every room), and I’m using washi tape to re-organize my dry erase boards.  I’m also re-examining how to better situate technology in my very old classroom; the document camera needs a new space and I’m hoping to convince technology to re-wire my projector.  And I clean.  With Clorox. Everywhere.
  4. IMG_20170602_102404 - Copy
    Part of the Core: Teachers who Started the Same Year As Me

    Establish your core.  I’m not talking about exercise, at least not physical exercise.  I mean your support group, your colleague core.  If you are new to your school, reach out to the person you will most work with and establish some mutual grounds.  Email your librarian, your IT department, and your department head.  Ask questions, schedule a time to meet before the school year gets started.  I reach out to the librarians with my course syllabus; the IT department and I meet to discuss the new technology I’m implementing.  I usually lunch with a few teachers in my discipline and invite new ones.  It’s important to feel connected to a sense of community, whether that be big or small.  Teaching very much takes a village and realizing how each of us connect is a big part of student success.  Any teacher who feels like an island is never well placed for a good year; if you aren’t a fan of big groups in the lunchroom, invite others for a coffee break.  While it takes time to develop a professional learning community, it takes one coffee break to feel connected. And that’s a start, for both you and your students.

  5. Harpers_Ferry_Fall_Foliage_by_Terry_Tabb_(770px).jpgPlan your next break.  I know, school hasn’t even started and I’m suggesting planning your next break!  I learned this years ago, when teacher burnout really threatened to end my career.  Before school starts, I plan the first vacation break in the new school year.  It can be as big as a week long diving trip (oh March, you can’t come soon enough) or a small weekend get away.  Have one in mind; better yet have one planned.  You will not have time to do this during the first months of school.  It will motivate you, re-invigorate you, and absolutely sustain you.  My first trip involves Harper’s Ferry, a convenient hour away.  I have a cute bed and breakfast planned right in the middle of October when the leaves are at their best. I may bring grading along, but I will at least be resting as the first two months of school are marked down on the books.
  6. Get a haircut. Maybe a manicure.  Okay, this one is maybe not a hard fast rule, but a spirited one.  Make yourself physically ready to greet the first day.  Find a first day outfit, get a first day haircut, or treat yourself to a manicure.  When you feel your best, you will be at your best. Maybe rock that brand new purse handbag patagonia messenger.  Do something that signifies a new start.  After all, that’s exactly what a first day is, no matter how many years of teaching: a new start. This year I may do all three.
  7.  Start mapping your collaborations or projects now.  Most teachers spend a lot of their summer re-inventing their curriculum, excited about how to make it new.  I will be honest: I spend most my summer trying not to think about my curriculum.  It rarely works in entirety; by this time I have an idea about new things I’m willing to do or new projects I’d like to try.  My first project is relatively easy to start: I’m re-doing the vintage game Guess Who? for the literary classroom.  (More on that soon.)  I’m also re-thinking the science fiction elective and hoping for a buy in from the science department.  Newspaper will utilize Microsoft’s Teams this year and this week I’ve started to establish their group site.  (Remember that utilizing a new technology can sometimes be a project itself.)  I’m also re-doing a play I wrote because a student  asked to produce it this year and wondering how to package the script.  All of this really gets my brain thinking and excited for the first day!
  8. IMG_20170705_130536 - Copy.jpgBring your kitten to work.  I’m just kidding.  Probably not an advisable thing, even if your kitten is just as cute as mine.  Instead, bring a happy photo for your classroom.  Just one or two; your students don’t need your life story in pictures.  Have one photo that makes you smile on those days you may need one.  I rotate mine out- sometimes it is my mom, sometimes its a kitty picture, and sometimes it’s just pictures of cupcakes.  (I’m not kidding.)
  9. Invest in a good planner and then use it.  I’m a moleskine devotee; my planner is a red 5 by 7 moleskine notebook.  I fill it in well before the first day, even taking an hour to double check my school email for events I might have missed.  I also utilize Microsoft Outlook on my laptop as well as Google cal for my phone.  Even so, the red moleskin is my dedicated school planner.  And I love the size- I can fit it into a bag with ease, the color is quick to spot, and the binding doesn’t catch on fabric.  I take notes right next to the calendar grid which is essential in faculty staff meetings.  Trust me, if you are navigating both a calendar and a notebook during a quick meeting, you will miss things.  I highly suggest a planner that leaves you room for both.  I have my planner with me through everything but lunch.
  10. Leave room to have room.  There is such a thing as the overplanned, overscheduled teacher who has a spot for everything.  That is just not me, and I find that often times it leaves little room for collaboration or those wonderful spontaneous moments when a project just clicks with the class.  Prepare, but don’t over prepare so much that you leave no room for the grinds to grease.  Let your students help guide your curriculum; leave room for them to explore.  I’m teaching Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and intentionally leaving some room in the course schedule for discussion.  And in the event there is no discussion, it will be okay. I’m going to let them guide me that week.

Now I’m feeling like I need cupcakes, a kitten, and my course schedule completed.  Happy first day to all my teacher friends, and be sure to add to my list.  What did I miss?

 

 

 

Notes from ISTE 2017 (or why an English Teacher Should go to a Tech Conference)

​​ISTE, or the International Society for Technology in Education is held every year nationally and this year was hosted in San Antonio, Texas. It is part conference, part massive share session, part exposition, and all teacher-student focused.  And while this is my second year in attending, every humanities teacher should attend at least one ISTE.  I was thinking about the “why” behind that statement very much during this year’s conference; how exactly does English (or humanities for that matter) fit into a growing STEM curriculum?

I’ve got five reasons in no particular order.

1. Sometimes a new idea is best found outside your comfort zone.  ​This was a good part of keynote speaker Jad Abumrad, co-creator of Radio Lab.  (And yes, I was completely fangirl about his speech!) He spoke of the need for teachers to re-think, re-know, and re-create.  And the more I think about it, some of my last year successes came from last year’s ISTE.  Some of this year’s new ideas came from this year’s ISTE.  Especially from….

2. ​The Playground is more than swings in the 21st Century.  ​Our students are living in a world where the playground is virtual or at least a mix of both the virtual and the real.  ISTE acknowledges that the best learning is understanding how they work together; the best teaching involves lessons that give students both theory and application.  And instead of listening to some amazing educators, you can go to the ISTE Playground and interact with educators, students, and even “play” with some of the new technology and curriculum developed in different schools.  My favorite “playground” this year is a three way tie. Technically, one is in the exhibition hall, which I’ll get to in number 3.  The other two share a space: Microbit and Code Academy.  Microbit is a new toy​ obsession​ microprocessor from BBC that introduces both a way to code from your phone (via their app) and coding in general across multiple platforms.  It works with Python, Java, ​Scratch and others.  And if you are new to code and want to learn, Code Academy was right next door to demonstrate their free coding classes.  I’m on my fourth one.  I’m addicted.  Grab me and I’ll tell you all about how I re-ignited my love of html (oh my angst high school blog…how I miss you and your html) and started learning CSS.  I’ve started Java, and Python is on the docket.  (And if you like learning languages or graphing sentences #nerdhere, then you will love this.)

3. The Swag to Meet all Swags: The Exhibition hall at ISTE is a claustrophic nightmare, but a great way to really get your hands on something.  Literally- exhibitionists (I couldn’t stop myself…)bring their wares/technology/software/etc to the massive room and set up shop.  This year, I studied the map before entering so I knew what vendors or peeps I wanted to meet.  It’s also a great way to get some amazing swag: I came home with a free microbit from BBC, four cool tshirts, entry access to a couple new software programs, and a hot wheels car.  Which brings me to Microsoft, my third favorite “playground.”  This year, #hackMicrosoft used their exhibition space to create a hotwheels STEM playground.  Using the retro toy ( I was totally a hotwheels girl- my parents found it a bit unnerving), they set up a station where a hotwheels car, a paperclip, a micro processor, Microsoft excel, and a race track helped you understand and measure the velocity, speed, and friction of an object in motion.  I have pictures. I am happy to share.  It was amazing.  They even had a station set up where you wrote about your experience (more on this in #5).  If you could tear yourself away from the cars (it took me 45minutes), around the corner was the nextgen of OneNote and the premiere of Microsoft teams. I’m using both in my classroom next year.

4. Who run the world? Educators​.  Last year was a bit of hit or miss for me when it came to the sessions.  This year? I couldn’t find enough time or clone myself to attend all the ones I wanted.  Every one I went to was a great way to dialogue with other educators, a way to learn how to look at curriculum a bit differently, or just a really amazing idea I’d like to adopt.  I even met one of the authors of a book I purchased in the ISTE bookstore and had an incredible conversation about the changing nature of English education and the importance of preservation.  I met librarians, English teachers, theater directors, ESL teachers, and even a few high school students who presented their digital partnership with a school in Africa. If nothing else, ISTE is an invigorating reaffirmation in the power of education and the incredible resilence of teachers.

5. How does this relate to English? At the end of the day, it’s not technology that connects us to the world or each other.  It’s not even the experience itself; it’s how we communicate our experiences, how we express our solutions, our innovations, our passions.  And where can you find that curriculum in abundance? The humanities.  Every tech/science/math teacher I met at ISTE argued that the humanities have never been more needed.  Every Microsoft developer I spoke with (and there are surprising quite a few at ISTE) emphasized how important communication, critical thinking, divergent thinking, and even empathy were core values to their company.  I’m not just learning to code because it’s fun; I’m learning a different way to communicate albeit with a program.  And then, I’m writing about that experience to a very human audience.  Yet, our students have trouble transfering their very applicable English skills to the STEM classroom.  My theory? If we don’t see STEM/STEAM as an interdisciplanary collaboration with the humanities, if we don’t practice and work in tangent with other departments, then how can we expect them to do the same?  My own ruminations on this have motivated me to re-invent my science fiction course.  Even more so, I would love to see every school embrace a creative non-fiction class where students would learn how to respond, react, and even collaborate with a very interdisciplinary reality. And that is really the new reality.

So yea.  Go to ISTE.

Life is Not a Solo Act. [Nor is teaching.]

My 11th grade English teacher had one motto and one motto only for nearly every inquiry or sought after advice: life is not a solo act.  A high school me understood that as the importance of friends but, while a true sentiment, not quite how I understand that motto now.  In fact, my previous understanding rings a bit false; we all need friends but that doesn’t always guarantee you are not a solo act.  Friends are often our most forgiving audience.  No- I think Mrs. Isenhour’s motto was about something slightly different than friendship, something the adult me recognizes immediately as a cornerstone of many successful relationships: collaboration.

Teachers are the stuff of collaboration.  The vocation almost demands it, whether collaborating with a student to master an objective, working with another teacher to develop interesting curriculum, or simply attending professional development with a team.  Collaboration might be my favorite thing about teaching, especially any collaboration that allows for interdisciplinary design. And if by chance lunch happens at a table with a diverse crowd, collaboration can be organic as it was the day Ms. Mattox introduced Dr. Ward and I to Kara Walker, a silhouette artist that focuses on the American South as a medium. We spent lunch discussing visual arts and the profound effect visuals have in moving others into action or reflection. And later, when meeting in the Madeira art studio to view Walker’s work, I could easily see the Southern Gothic influence in her art and I couldn’t help but recall the Gothic module in the American Literature curriculum.

It’s very tempting to write an entire diatribe about the Gothic tendencies in the Puritans and the arguably unavoidable connection to a Gothic inheritance in antebellum Southern society, exactly as we did that day.  I’ll spare the reader this in service of staying on topic.

Gothic3What happened next is, quite frankly, my favorite collaboration of this year.  Using Walker’s medium, Ms. Mattox, Dr. Ward and I crafted a project for the Gothic module in which I am affectionately calling “A Light in the Night.” We prompted students to remember their Slavery to Civil Rights module and connect the grotesque displays of racism during that era to Walker’s intent in some of her pieces; we then ask them to recall their current study of the Gothic grotesque.  In many ways, these two courses are the shifting notion of a very literal darkness for the Puritans trying to settle a nation in the wild woods and the very metaphorical darkness found in even the most democratic hearts and minds.  Students then channeled Walker, Gothic motifs, and their own “darkness” to create silhouette candles.  The results were sublimely fantastic, scary even: Mallie’s created a candle that reflected the electric chair and the horrors associated with the death penalty.  Katie’s candle reflected the damsel in distress motif and the fantastical dangers surrounding femaleness.  Ally’s candle watched you, quite literally, behind two demonic eyes. For all students, it was clear how art could channel the feeling of a time period, past and current, to move some into action and some in reflection.

Gothic1As for our own reflection, it’s a project that speaks to the testament of collaboration.  Perhaps Ms. Mattox coined it best, “[Collaboration] provides teachers a new opportunity to view their subject matter in a different light and lens, and share ideas for engaging students on multiple levels of learning.”  Essentially we become students too, waiting for that moment when the interdisciplinary design becomes alive in the mind of others.  While my favorite part was designing the project, there was some shared sentiment for Dr. Ward’s favorite moment: “seeing each little success: the right cut, the design that came out “just so,” the happy accident—each one a lively little moment of insight.”  I think that’s an elegant way of saying that collaboration is very much a reminder of how shared experiences are often the most insightful; that while individuality is indeed a solo act, life is not.

Becoming an Active Reader

From annotation to Project

*Note to reader: the original published version is here.*

body_reading“Learning to love reading is easy; learning how to be an active reader is not,” I say often to my students. I hope they start believing me because this is precisely what Madeira English is about: active reading. From the moment they start ninth grade, we push students to articulate the why or significance of a text. By sophomore year, we ask them to expand their ability to express how a writer’s technique creates shades of meaning. In junior year, we inch toward research mode by asking how that significance might correlate to a movement, a historical time period, or even an abstract concept. It is a process and it begins with active reading. But what does that mean?

This is the question asked most often in my classroom usually in some form of “How should I read this?” or “Am I doing annotations the right way?” From a teacher’s perspective, there are many answers to those concerns. For some, annotating means a highlighted, scribbled-in-the-margins book. For others, it means a Cornell-style note page. Last year in my class, it meant a presentation of insights in a shared document. The teacher in me loved this; the reader in me started a rebellion. After all, isn’t part of the assignment how you enjoyed the novel? Why you may not like it? Aren’t annotations a little too forced? I am trying to read, after all.

images
From The Joy of Teaching

I really began investing how to join those two things- how to move my students to both a personal response and an academic view of a novel.  I spent the summer like most English teachers, reading, only this time, I really tried to examine how or when my love of the book merged with my thinking about the book. And, while I may be closer to an answer, I do not have a perfect one. I did, however, emerge with new thinking about annotations. When we began Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon in the junior English Slavery to Civil Rights module, I asked students to do two kinds of annotations. The first is what I’m coining “commitment.” The assignment was simple: pick a chapter you liked, a chapter you felt connected the reader to a bigger idea, then organize your annotations for sharing. Not much different than last year; the significance here is “pick a chapter you like.” I’m coining the second collected annotations “invent.” I asked the students to do the same thing except, this time, they were to take the annotations and make something. Anything except notes. Make something that illustrates understanding and demonstrates why they liked the book.

The results were incredible.  See them here: https://vimeo.com/142632023

 

 

 

 

Twas the Night Before Class….

Sometimes I’m not quiet, I’m scheming.

I need to write about the VAIS conference that energized my teaching philosophy, but all I can think about right now is the Gatsby game that begins in my classroom tomorrow.  I’m like a kid at Christmas, an excited neurotic bundle.  I can’t wait to see it played, I can’t wait for feedback, and I’m already anticipating writing about it.

I can’t help it; I’m a gamer through and through.

This all started with “what ifs.”  I often find myself on Lauren Roy’s couch (she is the an education technology specialist at my school) playing through “what ifs.”  In my dream school, English is married to computer science or a technology class.  Video games are nothing more than interactive stories; novels are the original role playing games.  Yet so many educators are reluctant to join the two for fear we lose something.

I, on the other hand, think they would be great for each other.

It started like this:

“what if Gatsby were a video game”

and

“what if we took the desks out of my room”

and

“didn’t we just buy Ultimate Werewolf for Casual Sundays?”

and

“couldn’t Gatsby be an Ultimate Werewolf game?”

And suddenly, we were scheming. Two weeks later, and the Gatsby RPG  is ready for play tomorrow.  I’ve deviated a little bit from the original schematics (I’ll write more after the prototype is played through), but it’s just wonderful to know the fruits of collaborating with an amazing “what if” partner.  (Also, OneNote is a great tool to keep all those couch borne “what if” ideas.)

*Click the picture for better detail.*

OneNote Planning for Gatsby
OneNote Planning for Gatsby

For now, I’m giddy and can’t wait to play.  Will report back soon.