Jan Term Journal – Day 12

Today was my last day with Ms. McKinney’s fourth grade class. They were to have written little news articles about Martin Luther King Day celebrations that took place around Los Angeles. Some of them also wrote extra credit articles about the inauguration.

Because the students had Mass at the beginning of the day, I only had about 25 minutes with the fourth graders before it was time to go out to recess with the third grade. So, I had a few of the students read their articles to the class.

One student, Ezra, was super-excited about reading his article to the class. But when he read it, it became immediately clear that he didn’t follow the directions that I gave the class last week. A few of the other students caught onto that, and I had to do some quick damage control in order to tell the class what they were supposed to do and tell Ezra, “no, that’s not what I expected you to do,” while keeping his morale high.

I ended up telling the class about feature stories. These are stories that are usually not in the first section of the newspaper, but they may expound on ideas from news stories. What Ezra shared was pretty well-written, it just didn’t follow the conventions of news writing that I had taught the class. I explained that while Ezra didn’t follow the directions given, he still wrote a pretty good feature story that could run in the features section if the class were to put out a full newspaper.

Overall, the journalism experiment/experience was a good one for the fourth grade. They picked up the essentials and were able to start putting together some pretty sophisticated stories. When I teach journalism to a new batch of high school students in the spring, I will now have some ammunition: “Mr. Knox, this is too hard!” “Well, I taught it to fourth graders in Los Angeles, and English is their second language. If they can pick it up, I’m sure you can too!”

A double dose of 3-2-1s

Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about you when it came to 3-2-1 time last week. It just so happens that one of my 3-2-1s had some personal information about one of my students, so I decided to hold the post until this week. (and I know you’re wondering, but let’s just say that my student needs some prayer in the upcoming weeks).

Anyway, here’s what I’ve got for you:

10/18

  • Our first issue of the school newspaper came out this week! The students are so excited to finally see their product, and I’ve been showing off to my friends. The answer is yes: It is just as rewarding to see an issue come out for an adviser as it is for a student.
  • We had a presentation about interviewing with Becki Nappi of the Spokesman-Review, and I was really impressed! I have to admit, I was a little wary due to my journalistic background. But, not only did she teach us well, she gave me some ideas I can use with my staff in the future.
  • I’ve been talking with some of my friends recently who say things like, “Oh man, teaching? I could never do that,” or “Hey, good luck; you’re going to need it.” I think that part of the reason I’m enjoying this so much is that I can laugh at the little things that could really annoy other people.

10/25

  • At methods class on Monday night, Andy handed me a book and video for “Night,” the book I’m writing a unit for. I was kind of speechless; I completely didn’t expect that. Methods class is such a great resource for ideas. If it weren’t all the way down at LCHS, I’d wish it was every week!
  • I was able to teach the sixth-period freshmen English class on Monday, and we were reading from “Inherit the Wind.” The whole reading-out-loud thing fell flat for a couple of scenes, until we got to a scene that was held at a tent revival. The student who was assigned to read the preacher’s role asked if he could come up to the front of the room, and the class really got into it. It goes to show that although I might try something, it’s the students who decide whether it’s successful or not.
  • While teaching that same class, I tried to tell a joke that fell flat. Whoops. Explaining it was a five-minute diversion. Coupled with Lindsay’s experience where she mentioned NSync and none of the students knew she was talking about, those two experiences let me know that you can’t assume students will understand the pop culture references you make. I’m close to their age, but not that close.
  • Going to the presentation on Student Voice was actually really cool. I was pretty skeptical when I sat down at the table next to that huge, mostly empty binder. But after hearing the presentations and watching some videos, I became more convinced. It’s not like they’re saying, “you need to do this for every assignment,” but rather, “why don’t you work this in somewhere and let us know how it goes?”

3-2-1, 10/11/2008

Oh, hey.

One quick “definition of terms” issue to clarify: I use separate (but similar) vocabulary when talking about my time at MHS and at Whitworth. So, when I talk about “class” or “being in class,” that usually means I’m talking about my MIT classes at Whitworth. When I talk about “school,” that usually means I’m talking about MHS. If you’re ever confused, leave a comment and I’ll clarify.

Here are my four 3-2-1 observations for the week:

  • I spent Tuesday grading sophomore practice WASL papers with the district English faculty. I was surprised to find how much students were willing to disclose in those papers. We had several papers that were red-flagged because a student mentioned a pregnancy, feeling threatened by a specific student, etc.
  • There are few things more fun than going out to eat with a bunch of English teachers who truly enjoy each other. We went out twice this week (after WASL scoring and during the inservice), and they were two of the most fun meals I can remember having recently.
  • I never realized how cool turnitin.com is! MHS has a subscription this year, and we had a presentation about it during our inservice. I am definitely going to be taking advantage of that come spring.
  • If a student has a negative attitude, sometimes all they need is to be called on it (tactfully, after building appropriate rapport). We had a student this week who missed the after-school layout night, and so she was grousing about how we changed the design of the newspaper. One quick attitude check later, she became one of the more productive students in the class for the rest of the week.

What I’ve learned, 9/6 – 10/9/2008 (plus shoutouts)

Hey everyone!

So, as I previously stated, keeping up on this thing was one of my New (school) Year’s Resolutions. And I’m not going to let you down! I want to get back into the whole blogging thing. So, I’m easing into it here with a 1500-word post for you.

I find that it’s difficult to just “sum up” what I’ve learned, because there has been so much. Especially now that we’re spending time in real deal schools. Fortunately, we have a weekly assignment called the “3-2-1” where we list three observations or new learnings, two questions, and one “ah-ha” moment from the previous week. So to get back into the habit here, I’m posting all of my “3s” and “1s” from my 3-2-1s so far.

Before I jump right into that, though, I need to do a couple of shout-outs:

So! Without further ado, here come the 3-1s. I’ll continue to post these every week, as long as I remember to.

9/6

  • My mentor teachers are perceived by students as two of the best, most fun teachers at MHS. Students who take their classes always speak highly of them to others, and every grad that I’ve talked to says I’m pretty lucky to have them for mentors.
  • Each class has its own personality, and it can be greatly affected by the presence (or absence) of a single person. I have three sophomore English classes with very different “feels,” and they are all different for a reason.
  • No expectations. When students walked into class on the first day, I immediately started drawing conclusions about what sort of student they would be based on what they looked like, who they sat with and how they acted on the first day. After four days at MHS, my initial conclusions have already been proven wrong by several students. In the future, I will be more intentional about reserving judgment until I have actually met and interacted with students and given them chances to prove themselves in the classroom.
  • Teachers do everything on purpose. Every classroom activity has some reasoning behind it, whether it’s helping the students to master content, coming at content from a different angle, or just learning students’ names.

9/12

  • Freshmen are energetic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are hard to handle 100% of the time. One class had a practice WASL writing sample to do this week, and I was surprised at how well-behaved some of the students were for the last 45 minutes of the period after they finished. One of the rowdier students even asked if he could read out of a mythology textbook for a class that also meets in the room.
  • Test anxiety is real! I knew that some people had more trouble than others when “under pressure,” but I hadn’t really experienced it until I graded 90 16-point quizzes. I was surprised when I compared the names to the grades because several good students did poorly, while others who hadn’t been as responsible up to this point did very well.
  • I got the chance to teach five periods this week, as one of my mentor teachers was sick on Thursday and Friday. As I was reflecting on the experience, I realized that I was coming to like the idea of teaching more and more. When I started the MIT program, I was probably about 70-75% sure that I wanted to do this, but since I’ve been at MHS that number has gone up and up.
  • We start classes at Whitworth this week, and I’ve found that I feel kind of bittersweet about it. I am excited to see the other people in the program and converse about our experiences so far, but I am really disappointed that I won’t be at MHS full-time until the spring. I have been having so much fun so far, and I can’t wait to take over full-time!

9/19

  • “Exceptional learners” means “learners that require some sort of exception,” not necessarily “gifted learners.” This was a confusion in terms for me until class started this week. This dichotomy is immediately visible at the dictionary.com entry for “exceptional”.
  • Each class has its own personality, which is nearly tangible from the moment they walk in on the first day. As the first weeks go on, however, it becomes more and more evident. Apparently, on one of the days I was in class, one period “decided” they needed a seating chart. At this point in the year, I wasn’t surprised.
  • Breakthrough is awesome! I went to school on Friday, primarily to see this class in action. It’s a leadership/self-actualization/community service/etc. class. When I went, their lesson was on one of the Eight Keys of Excellence – “Failures Lead to Learning.” They watched a 10-minute movie clip and then had a kinesthetic activity. This is the kind of class I can really get behind!
  • I went to school on Friday, and I had missed it after being in classes at Whitworth the previous two days. It was great to be able to experience my mentors’ classes that I normally don’t get to see, especially Breakthrough (see above). I think I’m going to keep going on Fridays.

9/27

  • I think my English methods class at LCHS is going to be a lot of fun. Our teacher seems very realistic and focused on giving us practical strategies that we can use in the classroom, rather than more theoretical work.
  • I love going to all of MHS’ football games. While I see my 120ish students in class every week, sitting close to the student section (but not in it) gives me a chance to observe them in another context – with their friends, having fun outside of school. Which, of course, gives me a different perspective on their behavior in class.
  • One of my mentors has shifted from a less academic focus, and some of the students are having a hard time with it. If you start the year off “having fun,” I think it’s important to work some content in there as well so that when the content fully hits, students aren’t totally taken aback.
  • We had Open House this week at MHS, which was my first real contact with any parents. I was surprised that several of them had heard of me, and a few mentioned how highly their student thought of me. While I was flattered, the real “ah-ha” moment came when they mentioned how lucky I was to be working with my mentor. While I never really had any doubt, it was good to have my mentor’s reputation confirmed by parents who have been around the MHS district for a while.

10/4

  • When running a newspaper staff, there is a fine balance between “advising” and “getting too involved.” The students were just starting to lay out their pages this week, and I wanted to jump in so many times! I have to learn to let them work – it’s their paper, after all, not mine.
  • I watched a senior AP English class this week, and I was struck by the differences between this class and my classes of freshmen and sophomores. It was fun to be able to actually be able to discuss a short story with a class and hear things other than “this story sucked.”
  • Students can be reluctant to share in class, unless the teacher demonstrates first. I taught one period earlier this week where the students were supposed to do a journal entry titled, “My Closest Call to Death”. They were all lost when I announced what they were supposed to write about, but after I told my story, they couldn’t stop talking about their own stories.
  • A big part of the beginning of each school year is setting students up for success. One of my mentors tries to front-load the year with a lot of little assignments so that students who tend to struggle start off on the right foot. I think this is a great idea, and the students do too – many are excited about English because that they are keeping a high grade for the first time, even as more difficult work is setting in.

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.

“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.]