Saturday, December 30, 2006

Planning for next year

Spent the day in New York City with the family today, and now I find myself parked in front of the computer trying to nail down plans for the new year, which is only a weekend + 1 away. I had already planned to start the year by giving the students a choice of three books - Frankenstein, The Color of Water, and Black Boy. The unifying theme will be Alienation & Isolation. To start, each student will read the first chapter of each book and choose one on which to complete a prediction assignment.

Even though I have the general outline in mind, now I'm stuck in front of the computer discovering the possibilities of the Google calendar tool. I decided to use it as a day-to-day lesson planner. Each event in the calendar is the day's lesson. In the event description section, I sketched out a rough lesson plan, so each one looks like this...

This allows me to write up my lessons informally, edit and change them, and also maintain a record of the instruction inside class. I also co-teach with a special education teacher, and she can log in and leave comments/suggestions about the lesson. It goes without saying that everything in the calendar can be searched. Another handy little benefit. You also have the option to share some, all, or none of your calendar contents with the Google universe.

Next, I created another calendar, this one listing all the due dates for my students. This can be linked to my blog or my website, and I can print it out to give to students in class. What makes this function even more handy is that, if I view the two calendars together - planning and due dates - it makes it easier and more visually understandable for me to see my lesson plans alongside the corresponding due dates. Here's what it looks like so far...

As you can see, viewing it in agenda produces an easier on the eyes format, especially for seeing the longer calendar entries. There is, however, an option to toggle back and forth between calendar view and agenda. If you haven't already discovered this tool, I encourage you to check it out.

Thanks for reading and Happy New Year.

Monday, December 25, 2006

A few Christmas words...

Maybe it's just because A Christmas Story has been on TV too many times in a row, but I'm wondering if my six-year-old son, CJ, is going to grow up with memories like Ralphie about this Christmas.

He woke up at about 3 a.m. this morning with a nasty belly ache and what I think was an unfortunate case of nerves. It seems to me that he's been unusually nervous since last week, when he received a letter from Santa Claus in the mail. He had attended a children's holiday party at the high school where I work, and during one of the craft activities he had written a note to Santa Claus. The annual party is organized and run by students in the child development classes at the school. The letter was in response to that note. Overall, the letter was positive and told him that he had been a good boy all year - just what every kid wants to hear this time of year. What my son picked up on, however, is that Santa's letter also said that he hadn't been as good a listener as he could have been all year, and it suggested that he try hard again next year.

That's what he focused on. Try again next year. Several times in the last week he asked if he was going to get presents or would he just have to try again next year. He said the same thing when he went to bed last night. Each time we tried to reassure him that it was fine, nobody was perfect, and he had been a good boy. Even more important, we told him that we thought he had tried his best all year. We told him again and again during the week, and again when he woke up at 3 a.m. - this time to vomit. As we watched him get sick, we looked at each other - there was nothing my wife and I could have done to reassure him, short of revealing the entire unglamorous adult truth to him about Christmas. We know that CJ is an extremely kind and sweet little boy. None of that seemed to matter in the wee hours of Christmas Day 2006. He had already worked himself into a full panic. And it wasn't until he opened the air hockey table, assorted clothes, electric toothbrush, and Leapster game cartridge that he finally began to settle himself down.

It's obvious that my son was a victim of an incomplete understanding of what he read, caused in part by his elementary reading level skills. If he did the same thing in my high school English class, I might instruct him to go back into the text and re-read it to adjust his comprehension. Maybe I would suggest highlighting relevant passages or recording his thoughts in the margin. It might also have been an appropriate time for a mini-lesson on different active reading strategies. Too bad my class set of yellow highlighters was locked up in room F14 at BHS.

What probably was a throwaway line in the Santa letter - written no doubt to make a generic letter from Santa sound realistic - seemed to have created a real piece of childhood trauma. That and probably a touch of the flu.

When school starts up again, maybe when I'm doing a think-aloud activity in class, I'll probably be reminded of CJ and his case of Christmas anxiety. I hope I can save one of my sophomores from a similar fate. Until then, I'll have to wait a few years until CJ can really be able to laugh about the whole thing.

Thank you for reading and Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Student blogging

Am I the last one on the blogging bus?

We just finished up a unit on The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, a play by Paul Zindel. The play is fairly short, easy to read, and only has three major characters. It's great to read and act out in class. As a result, I struggled to think of ways to encourage my students' thinking beyond the classroom, and to extend the discussions we did have inside it. That is, until I decided to use my new blog.

I put a prompt up every few days and asked the kids to respond in the comments section. Here's what I got. And you know what, I didn't have to waste class time collecting anything hastily scribbled and ripped out of a notebook or watching a kid rifle through a backpack. I read their homework at my leisure, and I even posted some of it on the whiteboard with a digital LCD projector as part of class discussions. The kids loved it, too. What really surprised me is that one of the biggest reasons they mentioned for loving the blogging process is because it made it easier for them to understand the homework assignment. Numerous students told me that if they were confused about the homework question, they looked to see what their classmates had written and it helped them. The best example of this was the posting about good literature. We cut and pasted pieces of their definitions into a Word document to create a graphic organizer/study guide before the test. Better still is their work remains as a future resource for the class.

I think what has made this technology so invigorating for the classroom is its immediacy and transparency. Teachers looking for those authentic situations in which to publish student writing can find it with student blogging.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Joys of Wiki?

Just discovered how easy it is to create a wiki. So I did it. And here's what I did:

The English department at Branford High School also happens to be in the process of developing an honors option for our 10th grade heterogeneously-grouped English classes. Right now every sophomore takes English 10. Next year, we hope to offer students in those classes the option of earning an honors distinction for the class. This would mean they would get an honors designation on their transcripts, a nod to those parents and students who feel they are slighted by not being able to take an honors English course until Junior year. Our principal has given us release time to draft a proposal and plan for implementing it in 2007-2008. Here's what we came up with, using wikispaces.

Check it out, and if you have any suggestions or questions, I'd love to hear them.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Just another day of discussion?

Today with my sophomores, I did a little something different. Like many English teachers out there, I sensed that some of those showing up to my class everyday were not keeping up with the assigned reading. Can you imagine that? We've been reading a series of short stories, and it should be noted that this is a 10th grade completely heterogenously-grouped class. Anyway, before starting the preparation-discussion portion of class, I decided last minute to give a little reading check quiz to smoke the non-readers out. It's amazing how an occassional quiz like that - even only a quick four plot-based questions - can inject a bit of anxiety into the room.

After the quiz, I handed everyone a note-taking sheet that asked them to jot down significant quotes, point out connections to other stories, and pose questions about the text - standard fare as part of my Literature Circle instructional model. As they did that, I circulated through the room and checked their Post-it notes on the stories. But this time, armed with the quiz, I approached a few kids who had obviously not read. And I didn't bother checking their Post-its because they knew they didn't read, and if they had them, they'd obviously be faked.

Instead, I offered the non-readers an option. They couldn't take part in the conversation with their peers, but to earn partial credit for the day, they could answer three of the questions at the end of the stories in the textbook. They shrugged and started to read. The rest of the class I put in their Literature Circles discussion groups.

It got me thinking about about what had happened. Was it right to give those kids who didn't read a second chance for some credit? What kind of message did it send to those who didn't read? Maybe some are figuring they can come to class, read a little, answer a few questions, and shuffle off to their next class. However, the small-group model of discussion seems to genuinely appeal to the students, especially those capable and willing to be more independent. They get to hear each other's opinions, and I stay out of the equation for the most part. With each non-reader, I had a conversation about them being prepared for the discussion and how much more valuable they are contributing to a group. I thought about keeping a tally of how often they come prepared, or participate in a group. Such record-keeping could help me quantify a class participation grade. How about the kids who did read? Are some thinking that they'd rather be reading alone, answering questions. I tend to think not, considering adolescents are such social beasts.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Welcome to the School House Blog

This, my first venture into the edublogosphere, is an experiment I'm excited about undertaking. I decided to start this blog for two reasons. a) Everyone else seems to be doing it. b) It seems like a logical extension of the work I've done sharing ideas and resources on my school web page. Doing so has allowed me to connect and share ideas with colleagues who are also interested in this method and any other resources/materials I share. Much of my reflection and focus has been on the use of a Literature Circles approach in the classroom. Ultimately, my goal as a teacher is to shift my instructional approach away from me and on to the students.

I'd like this blog to be an extension of the thinking and experience that comes out of teaching high school English. I hope to post regularly about what I've done to prepare for class. What the students are doing. What might work. What doesn't. I also hope to make connections to other professionals undertaking the same journey as I am.

Welcome aboard.