Schoooool’s out for the summer!

Schoooool’s out forever!

Okay, not really. But our first summer term for MIT is over! Whoa! It seems like it went so quickly; but I guess that’s what happens when you’re in the same room with the same people for eight hours every day.

On our last official day of class (Tuesday), we each shared our zines that we made with about half of the class, then did a little bit of reflecting on the term. Specifically, we were to share our answers to four questions with a partner: “When was a time during this summer term that you laughed so hard you were about to cry?” “What are some new friendships that you’ve formed?” “What is a choice you made that you have really appreciated?” “When was a time that you felt especially competent?”

Apparently, those four things (laughter, friendship, choices and competency) are four factors that make an environment conducive to student learning. So, I’ve decided to use those categories as sort of wrap-up reflection categories for this post about the summer. I’m going to start out with the first two tonight (laughter and friendship), and hopefully I’ll be able to come back and finish up with the last two before I forget or get some sort of burning desire to post something else. Anyway:

Laughter

We have had so much laughter with each other outside of class: Playing Settlers of Catan, barbequing, celebrating the end of the term at Twigs, making s’mores at Jon’s house, staying up too late talking and hanging out, playing Wii Sports, etc. For the sake of this post, though, I’m going to focus on some laughter inside of class.

One of the gems that we learned from Jerry (a guest lecturer) on Tuesday was the banner that hangs up at his middle school: “Learning is noisy.” At this school, if students are sitting quietly and listening to the teacher, something is wrong. It’s a dynamic environment that sounds unusual at first, but begins to make more sense. The MIT program is not focused on being rigorous and whipping us into shape (at least, not during the summer term); instead, it is focused on helping us learn some basics. And let me tell you, we can get noisy.

That being said, we have had some great moments of noise and laughter during our classes. The best example in my mind is I think of the time when my group was giving a presentation and explaining how a teacher could use a blank Dinosaur Comic to assess reading comprehension in any subject area. Students demonstrate their comprehension by recontextualizing their knowledge into a blank comic. It’s kind of like writing a sonnet, only a little bit sillier. Our group had decided that we would demonstrate by filling one out as a class on the document camera. We asked for a volunteer, and a Health and Fitness major suggested that we make a Dino Comic about sexually transmitted diseases. It could have gotten out of hand, but our class actually made a charming (and hilarious) little story about why T-Rex should make wise decisions and use protection. The class was rolling on the floor. We range in age from 20-50(ish), but we released a little bit of the junior high humor in all of us. And you know what? We learned about STDs AND we showed that the strategy can work in nearly any content area!

Friendship

This has really been the story of the program so far. Even though our official orientation was a little bit rocky, we have done a great job of building a learning community. I don’t think anyone in the program feels left out; we each have our little niche. And even though we spend eight hours together every day, we still enjoy hanging out after school and on the weekends. For the most part, people in this program don’t get tired of each other. I think that’s really something special.

Because I worked as an RA the past two years, building community has become fascinating to me. How do we learn to live/work/play with one another? Fortunately, it’s a focus in this program as well. My slightly-adapted version of Dr. Mandeville’s student life mantra seems to apply so well, in fact, that I’ve incorporated it as a portion of my vision statement: “Build community, grow adults and let good things run wild.”

The mixture of people is pretty entertaining; we span a roughly 30-year age range, but some common goals has brought us to Whitworth. The age differences seem to melt away when we’re in class discussions. I know as one of the younger people in the program, I really appreciate being treated as an equal by my elder classmates. One of my teaching gurus once told me that journalism is important because everyone has a story. It has been so fun for me to meet all of these people and begin to figure out some pieces of their stories. We have almost a full calendar year left together, and I’m excited to find some more pieces.

Advertisements

Joys of MIT (so far)

Well, we’re over a month into the MIT program, and to say the least, it has had its ups and downs. I’d say it’s been good overall (and we’ve had more ups than these guys).

It can be easy to criticize our situations; however, I think that it’s very important to take stock of what we love about the people and things around us. That’s what I’m doing here. This is a list of things that have given me a little bit of joy during this summer term. I’m not pretending that this list is exhaustive, but here’s a little window into our summer MIT world:

  • Seeing Whitworth over the summer and all the hard work that Facilities Services and various construction crews are putting into improving/beautifying our school.
  • Cory delivering the best question of the first day (“Why the heck are we talking about sustainability?”).
  • Tuesdays at Didier’s!
  • Having fun with my “Extreme Classroom Makeover” group.
  • Michelle helping Eric learn how to use technology during our first class.
  • Going to two Spokane Indians games, one with Dr. K and one with Katrina.
  • Watching Cory beat Mario 64 by earning all 120 stars… twice.
  • Dr. Cherry admitting that there were some mistakes made on Day 1 (Note: This is not some sort of schadenfreude. This was a joy for me because most people in Dr. Cherry’s position simply wouldn’t be willing to admit their mistake. They might make a minor tweak here and there, but nobody would ever know. Cory has written about this phenomenon at Whitworth before).
  • Reading Pink & Say out loud to Maryanne.
  • French dips every Wednesday!
  • Listening to Robby‘s excitement whenever a new piece of technology is introduced (“that is SO COOL!”).
  • Meeting new friends whose paths I somehow haven’t crossed at Whitworth for the past three or four years.
  • Also, how about some new friends who are just coming into Whitworth? We have a great classroom culture, and they are a huge part of it.
  • Figuring out this whole “cooking your own food” deal.
  • Having some extra time to read.
  • Watching Jenn’s stress about her wedding turn to excitement and then relief and contentedness.
  • Eating Jenn’s leftover wedding cake!
  • “Research & Assessment” and “Advanced Educational Psychology.” Kathryn’s classes are the only ones that are structured like actual college courses, so it’s nice to have that familiarity.
  • Adam’s ongoing quest to find someone, anyone else who has read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
  • DOING LAUNDRY WITHOUT PAYING FOR IT. That might seriously be my favorite thing about living off-campus so far.
  • Counting the days until the Blazers tip off at summer league!
  • All of the sweet hangouts that we’ve had after hours. I was worried that we wouldn’t have any free time, but here we are having BBQs, roasting marshmallows, playing board games, drinking milkshakes, watching movies, etc.
  • Whenever Kevin gets a chance to teach. The man makes me want to take his high school social studies class.
  • Realizing that we’re more than halfway done with the first summer term. Whoa.
  • Keeping up on the blog, after all!

Yep, Ferris Bueller had it right (as usual). Life moves pretty fast; If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

“School of Dreams”?

One of the great things about the MIT program is that I have a lot more time on my hands than I have had in the past several years. Part of this time is spent adjusting to life off-campus: shopping, cooking, cleaning and generally attending to domestic tasks. But even with all of that, I still have some extra time to read.

How did that happen? Well, a number of reasons. First of all, the summer MIT term is not nearly as rigorous as my undergrad coursework was. Having class from 8:00am – 4:30pm every day is honestly the toughest part for me. But the focus of the term is not on learning content to teach; instead, it is on beginning to build our teaching “toolbox” and preparing us to go into the public schools this fall. Our next term will build upon the foundational work we’re doing now.

Also, I loved my undergrad career at Whitworth, but I really ran myself ragged during my junior and senior years. In addition to nearly double-majoring, I had two jobs on campus (RA and music director at KWRS). I spent a lot of time running around campus for one of my four major time commitments, and tried to spend as much time building relationships with friends as I could afford while maintaining a decent GPA.

I love reading, but I was so busy that I couldn’t even read everything I was assigned in college – much less anything for pleasure. So when the summer began in May, I started reading. I’m planning to read several of “the classics,” and I will probably be spending August catching up on some of the literature that I will be teaching at Mead next year. But throughout it all, I’ve had the chance to pick up some great books about education. Whenever I finish one, I’ll post a review up here.

I recently finished reading Edward Humes‘ 2004 book “School of Dreams: Making the Grade at a Top American High School.” Humes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who spent the 2001-2002 school year at Whitney High School in Cerritos, California.School of Dreams

“School of Dreams” follows Humes as he teaches a writing workshop class, interviews teachers, students and administrators, and even takes classes at Whitney. But the book is not at all about Humes’ experience; it is unabashedly the Whitney High School story. In addition to telling the story of the 2001-2002 school year at Whitney, Humes covers the school’s history from its opening in 1976 to the present day.

Whitney is no ordinary school. As the top-ranked public school in California, something unusual is happening there. People move to Cerritos from all over the world to send their kids to Whitney, and they have been for years. School administrators run ads in foreign newspapers, some as far away as India (indeed, that’s about as far as you can get). Nearly 75% of the students are Asian-American, and white students make up just 7.3% of the 1,020 students at Whitney. The school services 7th-12th graders, and all sixth-graders must pass an entrance exam in order to attend.

Expectations are high for students at Whitney, and they largely deliver. Each Whitney student spends four years striving to get into colleges across the country. But not just any schools – Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Stanford, etc. Going to a school below the Ivy League’s caliber is just not acceptable for these students, or frighteningly enough, for their parents. Some of the Whitney parents are so gung-ho about their student’s academic success that it seems like high school is more about college for them than about their child.

Because of these high expectations, the joke circulates that four is the magic number at Whitney: Four hours of sleep, four cafe lattes a day, 4.0 GPA. It’s not much of an exaggeration. The students are absolutely overworked, and it’s all in the name of looking good to the big-name colleges.

When I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but think of the “culture of busyness” at Whitworth. As previously stated, I spent at least two years being way too busy. My experience was far from an anomaly – I tend to work well under pressure, but my undergraduate peers were busting their tails too. Some of them even worked harder than I did. In one extreme case, a friend of mine was working three jobs and taking 24 credits! Ugh.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with being busy and involved in your school. Personally, I love it. It’s how I got through high school and college, and I look forward to helping students enjoy their high school years from the other side. But there has to be a balance in life; a balance that I’m starting to find now. It’s kind of scary to watch how some of the Whitney students described in this book suppress their true passions in order to get higher grades and get into a college they don’t really want to go to. The question that hardly any of them seem to be asking themselves is, “is this lifestyle really worth it?”

The secrets of educating middle and high school students are not easily unlocked, and it seems that achieving academically unfortunately sometimes comes at odds with living healthily and happily. Whether they should or not, the students at Whitney struggle with this dichotomy every day (four is the magic number), and Humes’ account of their way of life is fascinating and well-written. I heartily recommend this book to any teachers, people who want to be teachers, or anyone who has any sort of interest in our school system.

You can read an excerpt from “School of Dreams” here.

Diversifying the Literary Canon

So, for our Critical Issues class, we each chose a “critical issue” in education today and gave a presentation about our given issue. We had presentations on cutting PE out of secondary schools, No Child Left Behind, the WASL, bullying, growing up online, etc. Everyone that I got to see did great! It was fascinating to see what people came up with and to watch them put such passion into a 15-minute bit of teaching. Because this was an individual project on a topic of our choosing, I decided to give a presentation about a Language Arts/English topic. What follows is an approximated written version of the presentation I gave titled “Diversifying the Literary Canon”:

Here is a list of the ten most-taught titles in high school English classes (grades 9-12):

  1. Romeo and Juliet (taught in 84% of 9-12 English classes)William Shakespeare
  2. Macbeth (81)
  3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (70)
  4. Julius Caesar (70)
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird (70)
  6. The Scarlet Letter (62)
  7. Of Mice and Men (56)
  8. Hamlet (55)
  9. The Great Gatsby (54)
  10. Lord of the Flies (54)

What do you notice about these ten books? First of all, all ten of them were written by white authors. Four were written by William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Hamlet), five were written by other American or British male authors (Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lord of the Flies by William Golding), and one was written by an American woman (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee).

“But wait,” you might be saying. “This sort of research isn’t really helpful! We read plenty of books by authors from diverse backgrounds in the secondary schools, there just isn’t a standardized canon of their novels. Therefore, the statistic isn’t significant because it tracks individual titles, not ethnicity of the authors.”

Fortunately, this same study coded each title by the author’s sex, country of origin and ethnicity and ran those statistics. It found that 81% of the books we read in the secondary schools were written by male authors, 98% were written by white (non-Hispanic) authors, and 99% of those were either written in the U.S. (63%), U.K. (28%) or Western Europe (8%).

Why does this keep happening? Why do teachers persist in teaching the “dead white guys” instead of embracing authors from all backgrounds?

Well, there are a number of reasons. First of all, many English/Language Arts teachers remain personally unfamiliar with titles outside of the current literary canon. If they don’t know what great works of literature from other traditions are out there, how will they be able to convey that information to their students? Secondly, teachers are often uncertain about the literary merit of such diverse texts or the potential appeal to students of anything that hasn’t been taught before. If a teacher hasn’t read a book and doesn’t know anyone who has, the search usually ends there.

Finally, teachers are also worried about the potential community reaction that could arise if they change the books taught in their classes. We’re teaching good books in the schools, they just happen to be almost exclusively by a particular ethnic group. I am fully convinced that if one high school student reads 20 books in his high school career and another student reads 20 completely different books, the two could each have complete, enriching educational experiences. By inserting a greater diversity of authors, we would no doubt be leaving out great works of literature. However, we are already leaving out thousands great works of literature from around the globe.

So what? What are we supposed to do with this?

First of all, we have to do away with prescribed lists of authors from the district, state or (God forbid) federal level. Brand new English teachers might benefit from being told exactly what to teach, because they could focus more on learning the mechanics of teaching during their first couple of years. However, these lists will eventually become a crutch that stifles the teacher’s creativity.

Secondly, we must require diversity. That isn’t to say that we need to have quota systems where teachers are required to teach X number of American authors, X number of Asian authors, etc. etc. Instead, we need to require a diversity of genres. The research shows that the biggest cultural gap is in book-length works of literature. In fact, the top poet taught in American high schools today is Langston Hughes, an African-American author during the Harlem Renaissance. That’s a step in the right direction. When more short stories and poems are taught in secondary schools, teachers are generally better at including non-white authors.

Finally, you have to trust English teachers. Ideally, the high school English teacher is a creative trained professional, capable of discerning what literature is right for his or her students and excited to find innovative methods for teaching the lessons to be found in that literature. With a list of what books need to be taught each year, it takes away many opportunities for teachers to use that creativity.

My personal suggestion is to include a “World Literature” course at the high school level instead of squeezing one or two works by diverse authors into an otherwise-dead-white-guy-dominated course. This would get students to really digest the overarching course theme of “understanding different perspectives,” as well as helping to prepare them to be culturally sensitive, global citizens.

At my high school, the English curriculum had two courses at the freshman level (Frosh English and Reg Frosh English, which was remedial), three courses at the sophomore level (Reg Soph English [remedial], Soph English and Advanced Soph English), four at the junior level (Junior English, Humanities 1, Advanced Junior English and AP English 1), and four at the senior level (Senior English, Humanities 2, College Prep English and AP English 2). Speaking from my own experience, Frosh English was a survey class (mostly dead white guys), Advanced Soph English was a survey class (ditto), Advanced Junior English was an American Literature course, and College Prep English was a British Literature course. In my ideal scenario, the freshman and sophomore classes would be directed (American Lit and BritLit). The junior class would become a World Literature course, and the senior class would be a survey encompassing authors from all three categories.

To conclude, here is a sample reading list for a semester-long World Literature class aimed at advanced high school juniors:

[Note: After the presentation, two friends suggested that I add We Never Make Mistakes by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan to the above list. I haven’t read either of these books, but I will soon. My classmates were adamant that these books were fascinating, and I believe them.]