Thanks, Dr. Cheng

Dear Dr. Cheng,

I confess that in the first months of being a student in your Alpha class*, I was not fond of you or your class. I had gotten by with BSing on assignments for years and was irritated that you were not offering up A’s or at least high B’s for my writing efforts. Or reading efforts, for that matter.

I still remember the paper over Locke and Hobbes. You said I had to redo it, it did not meet your standards. I took it back to my dorm room begrudgingly and laid all the work out on the floor. I got out my highlighters, orange and green as I vividly recall, and I ACTUALLY READ the reading assignment that led up to the essay-admittedly for the first time.

Turns out, I actually thought it was interesting. I carefully color coded my highlighted notes and added notes and thoughts of my own. Then I proceeded to jot down a rough and scattered looking outline with arrows drawn all over the place. An outsider would have surely suspected it to be the gibberish of a mad woman, but I persisted.

I spent hours agonizing over the organization and (I now know the word!) synthesis of our class resources and how to word each piece. Here’s the kicker, Dr. Cheng: no one had ever asked me to do that before.

I had taken four years of honors English courses in high school and invitation only advanced English in junior high. I had always done well at throwing together papers for classes in about thirty minutes and generally getting A’s. These A’s meant nothing to me, of course. Just a letter. Just a hoop. But when I received an A on THAT paper over Locke and Hobbes, I was truly proud.

Something clicked for me that day, and you saw it. From that point on, I remember you would call on me to hear if I had any insights. “What do you think, Candace?” and while embarrassed by the attention, I was honored.

I don’t know where you are today, but I want to let you know how much I appreciate that you offered me that moment and for never catering to our complaints. I truly believe you altered the course of my future by demanding that I apply myself to my writing (and reading and thinking) and it has been a strong inspiration to me in my teaching journey.

Thank you,

Candace Follis

 *an intro to college and writing 101 class rolled into one year long class at my liberal arts university – freshman year of college


Layered Units

I have been intrigued by the idea of layered curriculum but it is taking some time to get the hang of its principles. The examples I found are inspiring but seem messy and confusing for students. My first attempt at it was no better, and furthermore was less like the original structure and more like that of a multigenre project.

The thing is, I kind of like that. So I’ve been thinking about how to compromise between the Bloom’s style “layered curriculum” as it was created and the more multigenre, standard/objective meeting unit I envision. I would really love to have some feedback on how best to make this a reasonable task and not something that stresses kids out.

Connections – Write a paragraph showing how this text relates to a song, video, current event, other text, movie/tv show/play, or personal events, other (consult teacher).

Literary – Write a 1 page character analysis, essay on author’s purpose, essay analyzing appropriate literary technique from text, relevant editorial, other (consult teacher).

Create – Movie trailor, board game, modern script, parody, graphic novel chapter, other (consult teacher).

Ideally, this would be introduced at the beginning of a 5-6 week unit and students would have opportunities to work on it throughout. Minilessons relating to the tasks would be offered along the way, reading and vocabulary instruction would also function traditionally (whatever is typical for one’s classroom). Tech would be integrated as possible with accessibility considered; I made it optional for extra credit for my botched attempt at this though I would like to make it mandatory.

Students could develop contracts with the teacher to include the projects (one from each category) and tentative checkpoints. The teacher would have to be available for conferences on many occasions.

Am I on the right track or am I missing something critical? Please help! 🙂

Reflecting on NCTE

As  far as workshops and instruction, I think Kelly Gallagher’s presentation was the most meaningful and new for me. Since his session, I’ve found myself frequently referencing the “sweet spot of teaching” as he explained it and find it is my greatest challenge in teaching right now.

I do NOT want to spoon feed my students. I want them to think for themselves – that’s what I love so much about the whole student led movement.

Yet I am fully aware that I sometimes leave students confused. Sometimes this is because they are simply waiting for me to do the work for them, a strategy that has apparently been all too successful in the past (I would like to note that I believe this to be a universal problem). Other times, they are legitimately confused but do not understand either how to frame a useful question (“Uhh, I don’t get it” “What about it?” “Uhh, all of it, I guess?”) or spot their own confusion or that they do not want to or feel comfortable asking for clarification.

I think the first step that I must take to reach this elusive and ever changing sweet spot will be to have these conversations and teach/model how to understand when we are confused and what the most efficient strategies are for finding helpful answers. Lucky me, this also goes along with our regular reading strategies, though it even applies to simple tasks such as following directions!

I have to admit, since I realize that consistently teaching is at this perfect center is not sustainable or even achievable (especially for all of our various learners), I wonder if it is better to lean slightly to the too hard side rather than removing the challenge? Is this shortsighted? I fear it might be but would like to hear from other teachers on this subject!

An Invitation

This invitation comes from Jennifer Ansbach encouraging English teachers to join the English Companion Ning from Jim Burke. If you read my blog, you already know that I’m a huge fan of his work and his Ning (inspired me to create my own Ning for students).

Hi, English department friends and associates:

I know some of us are already on the English Companion Ning, but I wanted to let you all know about the resources available. I’m not getting paid to plug this, but it is an amazing resource for English teachers.

What’s a Ning?
A ning is a closed social network, like a Myspace or Facebook with a restricted membership. You have a profile, a blog, and participate in forums and send/receive messages.

What is the English Companion Ning?
Started one year ago this week by English teaching guru Jim Burke, the English Companion Ning is a place to share resources, ask questions, and participate in online, self-directed professional development.

Why should I join?
Jim Burke has leveraged his author and professional connections to bring some of the leaders in English education to the ning. Members include not only Jim Burke but current NCTE president and author Carol Jago, outgoing NCTE president and author Kylene Beers, and others who publish about best practices. Each month there is a professional book club, with an online discussion led by the author. Past books included Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide and Tom Newkirk’s Holding on to Good Ideas in Times of Bad Ones. This month’s book club on improving student writing features Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them.

There are forums devoted to specific topics, with people posting their handouts, lesson plans, and strategies. In addition, there is a place to seek help for questions or for support. Yesterday someone asked what to do when your urban students admit they think you are a pushover. Within a few hours, several people had offered solid advice and resources. Earlier this year, a teacher posted about celebrating with his student teacher, putting her in her car, and having a truck kill her instantly around the corner. That teacher found a place to share his grief and also received help and ideas for putting together a fitting tribute to the young woman (his students had written letters to her that he hadn’t given to her–he crafted a eulogy of the students’ own words about what she meant to them).

It’s free to join. Just sign up on Jim Burke pays the $25 a month to keep it running and does not accept any advertising on the site. I am not a paid promoter. This week, as the ECNing celebrates its first birthday, it has 9,700 members and Jim is hoping to reach 10,000 this week. He asked us to make sure our colleagues are aware of the ning and what it has to offer.


The Enemy and the Hive

Between my (fabulous) recent experience at NCTE and a recent edchat discussion (Tuesday evenings each week on Twitter – you should try it), I have been thinking about the future or education and about enemy mentality in education. From a variety of sources, I have been observing (in part as an outsider since I currently work in private education) that many teachers feel they are in the front lines alone and unsupported. That in reality, they could be much more effective teachers if it were not for administrative issues or educational legislation. First, I would like to say that it’s a fair complaint. These issues are absolutely obstacles in hindrances in many circumstances.

 BUT I think we need to accept that our only enemy is ignorance. THIS is the battle in which we find ourselves on the front lines.

We MUST move past the other problems. If the government or our local administrators are themselves IGNORANT then we, as teachers, must educate them. Rather than dwelling on things we do not like (ie standardized testing and the accountability/standards movements – these things are here to stay, folks), we need to be proactive in working to solve these problems or at the very least, temper their repercussions.

Another problem we are facing is that we are NOT a collective mentality and cannot agree on much. On Tuesday, I questioned what the edchat dream team school would look like (hey, there are even principals on there – it could happen). Many responded that it would be one giant philosophical debate regarding effective pedagogy and that essentially, nothing would ever get done. I would like to think that this group is brighter than that (and will happily provide my resume should this dream team ever find funding!).

The reality is that we need to be thinking about what it is that we want for the future of public education in rational, feasible terms. Work WITHIN the current system to evoke change (guerrilla warfare as a sage friend recently described).

How can we make some concessions from the teacher front and come up with a plan that might work for all involved? THEN we DO it. At NCTE we had an ECN meetup where I think it was Lee Ann (@Spillarke?) who suggested the tremendous power of the HIVE online. If we, through our substantial social networks decide to write a multitude of intelligent and similar requests to legislators, couldn’t we evoke real change? By swarming and acting together on various issues as they arise, couldn’t we make things happen and put all this pedagogical banter into practice?

 I am still to new to know what to do, but I would love to be part of this process in helping to shape the future. So my question to you is simply: How can I help?


*Originally posted as a page rather than blog post. Will be moving the comments over soon… Oops 🙂

Another Power of the PLN Post

I get it.

While my purpose here in Philadelphia is to learn how to be a better English teacher, I find that the sessions offered have not had as much impact as other forms of professional development in my life.

I’m currently sitting near the window in my hotel room (a very old building that has been well maintained; one cannot help but appreciate the elegant history) I can hear the marathon being run outside. No, not the sound of the running participants but the incessant shouting and cheering of the supportive crowd. Actually, as I was waking up and still groggy, I thought my neighbors were listening to The Price is Right loudly on their television! 🙂

My point is that it suddenly makes sense to me why the informative sessions have been useful but not life altering or as exhilarating as I had anticipated. What has been more important are my connections to fellow teachers on twitter and on the English Companion Ning.

They are my supportive, shouting crowd. “You’re doing great!” and “You can get through this – you will make it!” Just like the crowd below.

What would the marathon be without these people? How do they impact their runners? (Certainly we could ask Jen Ansbach!) How different would it be if they were running alone?

Teachers are often forced to run alone in the island that is their classrooms.  And how many flounder as a result of this? For me, I have met some of the most amazing teachers in the country and have felt guided and supported by them. Teaching should be about more than just our own students, but about the collective. When we support other teachers, we are ultimately helping even more students to have opportunities for success.

What a terrific experience it has been to meet my own cheerleaders and counselors. What a lonely trip this would have been if not for them. What a lonely profession.

So I’m here to say thank you and to look for more ways that I can support other teachers through this most rewarding and challenging of careers. Thanks. 🙂


But wait, there’s more!  So much of what I heard in sessions was information or ideas that I had already gained from my online networks.  One cannot help but wonder if 24/7 PD like this is going to replace some of what these types of conventions are about in the same way that the internet is slowly killing printed newspapers.

Why only learn a few special times a year (and OD on info at those times!) when one can learn as we can handle it. I love watching for new articles, links, and teaching strategies but I only read as much as I can understand or implement at a time. Often, it’s even more personal than this, however. Often, I am able to learn how to do something new AS the issue or question arises.

Here, I am supposed to find a whole slew of relevant but different sessions and cram them into to a few hectic days. But online I can find the information in tidbits. Better than that, I can ask my colleagues (PLN) what they think or if they can help me develop a deeper understanding.

The advantages of timeliness and of reciprocity seem to be some of the most fundamental needs of “21st century learners”. Teachers need to be part of this!

Chasing the Light Bulb

Sometimes as teachers, we have the priviledge of observing or even participating in a light bulb  moment. I would venture to say that it’s very different at the secondary level. Perhaps even a bit more elusive. But that just makes it more special, right?

I’ve realized that in my teaching, most of these moments seem to come from a big writing unit. You know, the laborious work with some necessary lectures (dull) and research. Sounds awful, and I used to say that I hated teaching writing units (umm… last month) but I noticed that I saw more aha! moments during these units so far this year.

I wonder if it’s because it is the most genuinely “skills based” and “assessable” (is that a word!?) work we do in English class since much of the reading and thinking are invisible/difficult to grade. But maybe it’s part of it is that I get to really work with students on an individual basis in a way that is very different from most of our class time.

Overall, it’s a pretty neat process. Students pick a topic. We discuss it conference style. Students collect sources and start to craft their thesis statements and narrow their topics. We discuss it and I get to ask probing questions and watch them think. [Not regurgitate.] Then they create their Works Cited pages. We talk again. Then the outline. More chatting. Then the rough draft – again with the talking and questioning.

Even though these writing assignments are difficult for the students to write and challenging for me to grade, in some ways, the atmosphere feels more casual. In some ways, we are working together. I’m invested in their work and want it to turn out well. I’m interested not only in learning more about their topics, but more importantly, their interests and opinions.

While I still think teaching a nice novel unit is a joy, I think there is a lot of joy to come out of teaching a writing unit as well. And the two big moments in my short teaching career that truly stand out have both stemmed from these very short conferences. Amazing when teaching is in the small stuff. 🙂