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:

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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

Bringing Shakespeare to Life: Performance in the Classroom

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In a previous blog post, I described my dramatic redesign of a unit built around Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. In that post, I mentioned that breaking the pattern of four rhetorical analyses of speeches from the play would be a couple of class periods devoted instead to studying and performing Caesar’s assassination scene from act three, scene one.

It has become an almost unquestioned cliche of teaching Shakespeare that the Bard’s work is meant to be seen and heard, not read. While reading Shakespeare’s plays still has a role of obvious importance in the study of Shakespeare, I think students certainly should get to see and hear his plays, too. There are a number of ways, all with their own advantages and disadvantages, that teachers around the world teach Shakespeare with at least some success: performing key scenes, watching the movie first (or while reading or after reading), reading the script at home and discussing in class, reading aloud in class, reading along with professional recordings, and so on and so forth.

You may recall from my previous post about my Julius Caesar unit, however, that my primary learning goals for these five weeks revolved around the appreciation and practical application of rhetoric and argumentation. Acting out a scene or two from each act, therefore, would not necessarily be the best way to get my students from point A to my desired point B. It seems a sin to me, though, to teach Shakespeare without any classroom performance. Continue reading

The Power of a Teacher Pep Talk

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Dead Poets SocietyFreedom WritersStand and Deliver. Chances are good that if you’re a teacher, you’ve seen at least one of these movies and had one of two reactions. You were likely either stirred and inspired by the teacher protagonist in the film who seemed to achieve the impossible in their fictionalized classroom, or you were frustrated by the impossible standards for teachers created by a film you felt had little connection to the realities of teaching.

In a recent New York Times article by education reporter Motoko Rich (which I highly recommend), Rich explores the strange dichotomy that exists in teacher-centric movies: every Hollywood depiction of teachers seems to represent them as either a hero/savior figure or as an incompetent clown (Mr. Schue on the Fox series Glee was alternatingly inspiring and incompetent). Rich suggests that “neither cliché has much connection to reality,” adding that, unlike the doctors in medical dramas or the lawyers in legal dramas who are actually depicted doing their jobs, “movies and television rarely show teachers, well, teaching.”

Teaching in Dead Poets Society, for example, is reduced almost entirely to a matter of charisma (although I would argue there are some small moments of pedagogical excellence in that film, too). Extended footage of a teacher doing what we generally think of as teaching–working with a small group, giving a brief lecture, conferencing with a student–is not a feature of teacher movies. While Rich’s article is a fascinating read and raises provocative questions about representations of teaching in film and television and their effects on public perception of education, it also got me thinking about the role of charisma in our profession. Continue reading

“Monitor and Adjust”: Changing Course Mid-Unit

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As part of a group research project for an education policy class I took a few years ago at UC Irvine, some classmates and I interviewed Tim Jamison, who was the president of the Irvine Teacher’s Association. My most salient memory of that interview is still the suggestion he gave us as new educators: “Monitor and adjust.” I didn’t appreciate the profound importance of his pithy advice at the time, but I’ve since come to understand how central those two verbs are to the art of teaching.

I monitor my students’ learning and adjust my practice to various degrees on a regular basis. For example, I’ll notice that an explanation of a concept is met with confused faces, so I offer my students a new analogy to help them understand my instruction. Or, I might see from a formative assessment that more than half of my sophomores are struggling to integrate textual evidence into their expository writing, so I clear a few days to spend an entire class period each on two methods, breaking the skill down into small steps, modeling the process, and giving students plenty of practice and individual feedback. Very recently, I had occasion to put this mantra to use on a larger scale: substantially revising a six-week unit a week into teaching it. Continue reading

Why All Teachers Should Be Optimists

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In a December 19, 1929 letter written from his prison cell, co-founder of the Communist Party of Italy and political prisoner Antonio Gramsci claims, “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” Seeing as how Gramsci would spend 11 years in Mussolini’s prisons before dying at age 46, he had plenty of reason to be pessimistic.

Since then, Gramsci’s association of pessimism with the rational intellect and optimism with stubborn will seems to have become almost a truism. In fact, it seems to be a popular sentiment today that optimism is somehow illogical, that we must delude ourselves into thinking positively: “mind over matter,” as the mantra goes.

It seems to me, however, that teachers have plenty of logical reasons for being unapologetic optimists. Continue reading