Grouping Students: “Sole Mates”

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Two sole mates from my junior class.

Counting off. Drawing cards. Lining up by birthday. There are many ways to get students (or anyone) into groups, some more creative or fair than others. Here’s another that I’m particularly fond of. I learned about “sole mates” at a recent AVID training in Tustin, CA. For those who are unfamiliar, here’s how it goes. Continue reading

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“April is the Cruellest Month”

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“April is the cruellest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.”
― T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

To be perfectly frank, I’m not a big fan of T. S. Eliot or of The Waste Land, but I can’t help but agree with what is perhaps the most famous assertion in his most famous (but little understood) poem. This is not a post about poetry, though (as much as I would enjoy writing one). This is a post about many teachers’ least favorite month of the year. This is a post about the cruelty of April.

To be sure, there are positive things that come with April: seeing in student assessments the fruits of months of labor, drawing to the end of a year of preparing for high-stakes exams, and enjoying the increasingly mild and sunny weather (if you’re into that sort of thing). Every year, however, I find myself beaten down a bit by the month of April.

In today’s brief post, I want to share three things that get me down in April and how I do my best to counteract the stress, frustration, and melancholia that come with “the cruellest month”–as much to remind myself as to inspire you, perhaps. Continue reading

Sharing the Stage: Social Justice Speeches

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Image courtesy of Flickr

Going into late February this semester, my plans for my AP English Language and Composition class included teaching a two-week-long mini-unit on the culture of sports in America. The timing was right: the two weeks of instruction fit snuggly between the Winter Olympic Games and March Madness. Then, suddenly, Parkland happened, and the timing was all wrong for a unit on sports. What did sports matter when 14 high school students and three staff members were dead and 17 others were wounded? What did sports matter when students were leading school walk-outs and protests across the country? What did sports matter when righteously indignant teens were engaging in Twitter activism to rebut their critics and engage with members of Congress?

I had to change my plans. Continue reading

Guest Post: Engaging Students with Snapchat Stories

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Image courtesy Flickr.com

Goodbye, Facebook character profile; hello, Snapchat story.

In my last post, I described some of the benefits I’ve reaped as mentor to my student teacher, Leo Spengler. In today’s post, I pass the mic to Leo to share about the innovative Snapchat lesson he conceived and implemented as part of our sophomore English course’s argument unit. Many teachers have relied for years on the fake Facebook page activity (“Fakebook”) as a “hip” and relevant way for their students to think about literary characters. Facebook, now, has been passé to my students for about five years, so I’ve been without a good social media-based lesson for as long as I’ve been a teacher. I highlighted this Snapchat lesson in my last post and share about here today because it captures the innovative thinking that a student teacher can bring to a mentor’s classroom and illustrates how just about any social media platform can serve an educational purpose. Please read on to see my questions about the lesson and Leo’s responses concerning the overview, background, and reflection on his lesson. Continue reading

3 Reasons I Mentor Student Teachers

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My student teacher (right) and me having a discussion about student writing.

There are reasons both noble and practical to take a student teacher. Student teachers need mentors to complete the requirements of their credential programs. Public education will benefit from new teachers having capable mentors to learn from. You’ll be shaping the next generation of teachers.

There are selfish and harmful reasons to take a student teacher, also. Some mentors only want the free labor: someone to grade their assignments, teach their classes, and take some troublesome students off their hands. These teachers, however, often do a disservice to their students and to their supposed mentees by providing little in the way of support and guidance to the student teacher.

In addition to the purely noble, the purely practical, and the purely selfish, there are reasons for mentoring a student teacher that are wholly symbiotic. They can be selfish, but they will also make for a better experience for your students and your student teacher. These are the reasons I took on a student teacher this year–my second in as many years–and these are the reasons I plan to continue taking on student teachers in the years to come. Continue reading

When Routine Hampers Productivity

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When was the last time I posted on this blog?

The fact that I have to ask that question is proof enough that it’s been far too long. When I started this blog, it was an ambitious goal for me to post just once every other week. I’d started and abandoned two blogs before, so I launched Optimistic Teaching with a more than a little doubt that I’d be able to sustain it. In fact, I made it only several posts in before I took an unscheduled hiatus from updating this site that would go on to last over a year. Blogging simply wasn’t a priority, and when you have a heap of items on your plate and you have to cut back, it’s the lowest priorities that go first.

Determined to return to blogging this year, I had to evaluate why I had failed to keep going the last time. What was the flaw in my plan that I’d have to avoid this time? I could say it was a lack of purpose or passion, but I had those. My purpose was threefold and clear to me from the beginning: I wanted to have a place to reflect on my teaching, I wanted to enter into a digital professional world and discussion by sharing my experiences in the classroom publically, and I wanted to establish a professional presence online. Moreover, I was passionate about these goals; they mattered to me. They still do.

No, it wasn’t a lack of purpose or passion that led to my failure. I’ve realized it was something much more utilitarian, much less profound. It was rigid devotion to routine. Continue reading

The Theatricality of Teaching

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Teaching and acting have a great deal in common. (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Students walk into a dim classroom.

“Thank you for being here today,” the teacher intones to the first student who arrives.

“Your presence here this morning would have meant a great deal to him,” he remarks somberly to the next student.

“I know this is a tough morning for you; he considered you a great friend,” he assures a third.

As students take their seats, bewildered, they notice the podium is draped in black, fake vines and a rose hanging from the top, flickering tea light candles arranged across the top of the lectern. Behind the podium, a drawing of a long-haired boy next to a soberingly terse epitaph helps the students make sense of this bizarre start to their second-period English class:

Simon
c. 1944-1954

This is the dramatic scene that greeted my sophomore students this week the day after I assigned them to read chapter nine of Lord of the Flies, the chapter in which the stranded boys of the novel, driven savage in their isolation from “civilized” society, “do in” ten-year-old Simon in a frenzy of mob violence.

Continue reading

Planning for the First Day of School

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As a teacher, there’s a lot of pressure to have the perfect first day of school. After all, this is the day you make your first impressions on your new students, and it’s the day you set the tone for the rest of the year. If you’re like me, the first day of school also the only specific day of the year you have nightmares about.

It’s no wonder that one of the best-selling teacher books of all time is called The First Days of School (co-written by Harry and Rosemary Wong, the book is now in its fourth edition and has sold nearly 4 million copies).

I spend more time planning my first day of school every year than any other day because I know what’s at stake and because I know how anxious I will inevitably be on that day each time a new group of 25-40 students walks through my door for the first time that school year. As a student teacher four years ago, I was lucky enough to observe five different teachers’ first day lessons and found the experience invaluable in planning my eventual first first day of school. So, in today’s blog post, I want to offer you a glimpse into my first-day routine and the way I approach planning for the big day. Continue reading

7 Teacherly Things I’m Doing on a Summer Evening

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Teachers, and advocates of teachers, have written a hundred articles about the so-called “myth of the teacher’s summer vacation.” (See, for example, this phenomenal Edutopia article.) While the summer does indeed provide a respite from the actual act of teaching (and from paychecks, unless the teacher takes on a second job or teaches summer school), I can’t imagine there’s a teacher out there who doesn’t do some school-related work during the summer between school years. Why is that?

Well, for one thing, a successful school year requires a great deal of careful planning. Good teachers don’t teach the exact same thing year to year; we tinker, we revise, we innovate. And a couple of paid work days in August certainly don’t provide sufficient time for all this necessary planning (although those days are much appreciated!).

For another thing, most teachers simply can’t turn off their “teacher brains.” Continue reading

Writing About Literature in the Age of Common Core

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By now, most English language arts teachers at the secondary level are aware that literature has not been eliminated or even drastically reduced by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). By now, most ELA teachers understand that the 70/30 ratio of nonfiction-to-fiction reading prescribed by the CCSS refers to the “sum of student reading” across all disciplines, including science, mathematics, history and social sciences, health, physical education, foreign languages, arts, and technical subjects, leaving plenty of literature to be read in English class (see the footnotes on page 5 of the ELA and literacy standards).

In fact, the CCSS’s “Key Shifts in ELA” document states that literature remains “the core of the work of [grade] 6-12 ELA teachers,” and the introduction to the ELA and literacy standards notes that “[b]ecause the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally.

But what still leaves many educators scratching their heads is where to find literary analysis in the CCSS. I know this because I was recently searching for it as my colleagues and I tried to figure out where it fit in the CCSS for ELA and Literacy’s three writing “types”: arguments, informative/explanatory texts, and narratives. Continue reading