Monthly Archives: January 2010

Quick Hit: Keeping Track

One of the things I promised myself I’d do in 2010 is keep track of my reading. To that end, I’ve started a page on my home blog where I’ll post short reviews of books as I finish them. I just posted my entry for Native Son and wowie, are my students in for it right out of the gate! Thanks, Carson!

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Filed under book geek, colleagues, Mrs. Chili as Student, reading

How to Make Mrs. Chili Very Happy

Send her free books!

My dear friend Sooza is an assistant director for an organization that coordinates grant-funded teacher education seminars. She and I were talking about this job and all of the wonderful opportunities it presents (both for her and for the people who get to take advantage of the programs) and I asked her whether there were a similar outfit operating in my neighborhood. Not only did she tell me that there is, in fact, a sister organization here, but she was pretty sure it was coordinated by someone I already know.

SCORE!

I sent Joe an email on Thursday asking if he remembered me (and dropping a couple of names (yours and Bowyer’s, Falcon), and inquiring about the program. I acknowledge that it’s aimed primarily at history teachers, I told him, but would there be space for an English teacher who finds herself, as a consequence not only of the material she teaches but of her ethics as well, teaching a hell of a lot more history than she ever imagined she would?

He DID remember me and told me that a new workshop was opening up THAT DAY (Goddess, but the Universe takes good care of me!) and that I would be more than welcomed to join them. He commented on the depth of inter-disciplinary work that I do in my English classes and said that he expects I will find the workshops incredibly useful.

I’m beyond delighted by this whole thing. Not ONLY do I get to go to some pretty intellectually rigorous seminars (taught by professors from Local U.), but they’re free. Better than that? They send me BOOKS! ALSO for free! More than THAT? They pay me $75 a day AND they cover the cost of my subs for the two days (one a month for two months) that I’m out! It’s like presents from the Goddess of Geeky Teachers!

I am very, VERY happy!

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Filed under book geek, critical thinking, ethics, I love my job, Learning, Mrs. Chili as Student, self-analysis, success!

Shakespeare Kitteh

You know, for an English teacher, I have an inordinately large place in my heart for LOLs.  This one hit me today.

I’m pretty sure it should be “thy foul grammar”… or maybe that’s the point…

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Filed under bad grammar, funniness, little bits of nothingness

Hey, Mrs. Chili! Whatcha Readin’?

I’ve signed up for GoodReads.com.  If any of you are on it (be careful; it’ll suck you in!), find me and add me as a friend!  Book Geeks unite!

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Quick Hit: The State of the Union

Sing it, Mr. President: the best protection against poverty is a quality education.  Let’s stop funding failure and start rewarding and encouraging – nay, demanding – success!

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Underwhelmed

Well, that didn’t go as I’d hoped.

Instead of writing a final (that they’d hate to take and I’d hate to grade), I assigned both of my CHS English classes the twin tasks of creating a portfolio of their work and of coming up with some way of working together on a presentation that would prove to me that they learned something this year.

The portfolio first: it was to consist of three items: 1.  a piece of writing they did early in the semester which, when they did it, seemed good at the time but now, after they’ve had substantial thinking practice, seems unfinished or immature  2.  a piece of writing that they really nailed – something that shows off their capacity to really think, and to really get it right, and 3.  a piece of original artwork that represents the growth they’ve done between the two aforementioned pieces of writing, along with a short bit of explanation that interprets the art in those terms.

Let me start by saying that there’s more pink paper in the portfolio than I would have ever dared to imagine there would be.  I assembled both classes’ portfolios with those pieces of pink paper right in them, though; I want my boss (and the board) to get an idea of the level of commitment that students routinely put on homework and projects.

Whatever; let’s move on to the presentations, shall we?  Here are some things you need to understand before we go much further:

1.  The students have been working collaboratively since day one.  My teaching style is essentially grounded in the Harkness tradition, and I make my first priority to build a learning community in the classroom.  These kids know how to work together.

2.  We bill ourselves as an arts-intensive school.  These kids all have foundations (and, in some cases, focused training) in music, theatre, and graphic arts.  Further, we have resources available so the students can put their talent and training to good use.

3.  I gave the students very clear instructions about what I wanted them to accomplish, but I did not tell them how to get there.  All semester, the kids have been complaining that they didn’t have enough personal say in how they proved what they know (especially in my classes, they said, where assessments were mostly “I ask the questions, you answer them” sorts of things.  We’ll get to why that was in a minute…).  Here was their chance to bust out and show me what they’ve got.

4.  Not only were they given creative freedom, but they were given ample time to produce their work.  They had every class period (1.5 hours) since last Wednesday – and this weekend – to put something together and make it audience-ready.

5.  I have taught them something.  LOTS of somethings, in fact; I have pushed and challenged and encouraged and driven these kids well past all of their personal boundaries, and I’ve seen evidence in every stinking one of them that the time we spent together had a positive impact on their capacity as learners.

Now, having said all of that, I’ve got to tell you that I was profoundly disappointed in the ways my classes chose to demonstrate their growth as learners over the semester.  Profoundly disappointed.

My I/II class decided to put on trial a number of the characters from the books we read.  Jem Finch, Ebeneezer Scrooge, and Leisel Meminger were brought to trial for various “crimes,” and supporting characters in their books were brought in to testify.  In their script, the kids included references to elements of fiction and allusions to some of my more oft-repeated points – along with a fair bit of funniness.

My III/IV kids decided to compose a song about our English class set to the tune of “Oklahoma.”  In it, they touched on some of the more relevant points of the pieces we read and they, too, included a fair bit of funniness.

For all of that, though, I am deeply dissatisfied with the presentations the kids put on.  They were surface treatments of the courses – both skits had the feel of theatrical trailer rather than critical examination – and the kids didn’t demonstrate, through how they chose to perform, that they really “get” the work that we did.  There were no visual components to either production – no one painted or sculpted or drew; there were no poems or dance numbers or vignettes; no one played an instrument (beyond one delightful boy’s interlude with a harmonica) or composed any original music.  They didn’t take advantage of the two hours they were allotted for their final exam; both performances were finished in less than five minutes.  There were no thoughtful, in-depth, or surprising elements – nothing that happened in either production made me proud of the work that I’ve done with the students.  In short, they proved to me (as they proved during the semester in assignments I gave them that had this sort of open-ended, use-your-talents-to-show-me-what-you-know format) that they can’t (or won’t) produce work that is equal to their ability without direct and constant supervision.

I’m in the process of writing my reflection about these disappointing experiences; I’ve complied both classes’ peppered-with-pink portfolios and have copies of both scripts that I’ll submit, along with my responses to them, to Carrie.  When I spoke with her this morning about my disillusionment with the students’ work, she commented that while she agrees that they should have been better, they are effective in giving us a feel for where we are right now as a community.  If nothing else, she told me, these experiences will serve to show us where we need to focus our attention and energy in terms of teaching the students to translate what they KNOW into what they CAN DO.

I’m thinking, given this experience, that next semester’s kids will get a final exam…

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Filed under analysis, concerns, critical thinking, dumbassery, failure, frustrations, General Griping, I can't make this shit up..., I love my boss, self-analysis, Teaching, You're kidding...right?

I’m So Easy

It takes so little to make me happy.  No, really; this morning, I am delighted by the fact that I can print directly to the photocopier from my computer.  Also, I love our secretary; she and I laugh about something every single day.  Also, I found this online; how much fun is THIS?!  It’s all 23 helping verbs sung to the tune of Jingle Bells!

Helping Verbs!  Helping Verbs!  There are 23….

Am, is are!  Was and were!  Being, been, and be!

Have, has, had!  Do, does, did!  Shall, should, will, and would!

There are 5 more helping verbs:  may, might, must, can, and could!
Guess what we’ll be singing in Writing Workshop class in a couple of weeks?

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Filed under fun, funniness, I love my job

Thought for Thursday: End of Term Reflection

As I lay wake in bed last night, I reflected on my first semester as a teacher at CHS.

In an effort to not lie awake tonight, I decided to put my thinking about my classes on paper.  I think it’s important that we, as teachers, think about our successes as well as about where we think we fell short.  Far too often, I think, we focus on our failures to the exclusion of the things that we do effortlessly and well.

This is the reflection I submitted to Carrie this morning about my III/IV class.

Mrs. Chili
Reflection for the End of Term 1, September 2009 to January 2010, for English III/IV

I am inordinately pleased with the work that was done in my English III/IV class this term.  Given that this was my first experience teaching at CHS and that I had a class composed of students who demonstrated vastly different levels of ability and motivation, I can say with a high degree of confidence that every single one of the students comes away from our time together with stronger reading, writing, and thinking skills.

My primary focus in any class I teach is the establishment of a strongly cohesive learning community.  As a practitioner of the Harkness method of teaching, I center my classroom around whole-group conversations in which I strive to be more of a guide or moderator than a leader.  The only way Harkness teaching works is if the students are willing to buy into the idea that they are responsible for the ideas that are discussed and the avenues of thinking that are investigated.  This class adapted exceedingly well to this method of instruction due mostly, I think, to the fact that there are several energetic thinkers in the group who were not only willing to express that thinking, but who were also ready to help their classmates long in their own thinking process.  Two or three of the students did most of the intellectual “heavy lifting” in the beginning of the term, but I watched as more and more students began to get the hang of the course.  By about Thanksgiving, nearly everyone in the class was an active participant.

I was surprised to find that a significant number of the students in this course were lacking in some of what I consider to be the more foundational writing skills, so a fair bit of time was devoted to the steps of the writing process.  A number of students – and two in particular – resisted this method, which involves prewriting and drafting, because they’ve been conditioned (or conditioned themselves) to think that if they couldn’t turn out a perfect piece of work on the first try, they didn’t want to do the work at all.  More than a few students struggled mightily with the idea that I expected their initial drafts to be bad, and their discomfort with the process of revising and editing led them to refuse to participate in it at all.  As a result, I feel that the students’ writing as a whole has not improved as much as I would have hoped.

I am delighted, however, by what I see as a significant improvement in their critical thinking and inquiry skills.  In the beginning of the semester, I had a room full of students who could tell me with some authority what the plot of something was.  We could talk with confidence about who the characters were and what they did, but most of the students couldn’t articulate the “whys” of the thing.  They had profound trouble expressing what I call the “big ideas,” though; the themes of a story or the motivations of characters to behave or speak the way they do.  As the semester progressed, however, I watched as more and more “light bulbs” turned on, and students began to understand not only the breadth of what we were examining, but the depth, as well.

I knew that important work was being done when the students began to call up experiences they had outside of class to help them articulate the work we were doing in it.  My favorite story of the semester is about Kiki, who was struggling with the concept of  honor in the context of the film The Last Samurai.  Several of her peers were arguing against a character’s decision to end his life in ritual suicide, and Kiki was trying to explain to them that, in that person’s culture and that person’s understanding, what he was doing was the only right thing to do.  She experienced a “light bulb” moment just then – her eyes got huge, she banged the table with her fist – and she then proceeded to explain the idea of situational ethics in terms of a television show she knows I am familiar with.  She explained, clearly and enthusiastically, how the characters in that show behave in ways that we – we there in the classroom – find abhorrent, but that we completely understand in terms of the lives those characters lead and the culture in which those characters exist.

Kiki’s explanation was a perfect example of the kind of thinking I ask my students to demonstrate, and hers is not the only story I have from this class.  I want for my students to be able to take the things we learn and experience in the classroom and apply them to the questions and situations they encounter in their everyday lives.  That’s the purpose of teaching critical thinking skills and I count this semester, for this class, as a resounding success.

Where I fell short is in inspiring my students to work for me on the page.  I encountered a similar problem in this class that I did in my English I/II class (and that several of my colleagues have expressed as a concern for them, as well); students simply didn’t do the work that was assigned to them.  The work they did turn in was most often well done – and was occasionally exceptional – but I found that they were, to a student, inconsistent about putting forth the effort to get the work done in the first place.  I will continue to reflect on this aspect of this semester; while I’m not willing to take on full responsibility for my students’ willingness to do work outside of class (we can only lead horses to water, after all), I am not unmindful of the idea that I can do more to inspire my students to want to do the work I ask of them.

Overall, I am profoundly proud of the work these students can do as a result of the time we’ve spent together.  They have engaged and delighted me, and I send them off confident that they’ll be able to meet many of the challenges they will face as they continue their education beyond CHS’s walls.

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Filed under critical thinking, I love my job, self-analysis, the good ones

The Average Russian Doesn’t Take a Dump, Son, Without a Plan…*

…and boy, oh BOY!, have I got a plan!

I’ve been given the official word that I WILL be taking the English III/IV class next semester (which starts on February 1st.  Yikes!).  To say that I’m delighted would be an understatement, though there is a fair bit of discomfort that’s attendant to this in that the teacher who was planning to teach it… well… isn’t.  I’m going to keep focused forward, though; the decision wasn’t mine to make, so I’ve nothing to feel guilty about.

Anyway, I’ve decided that I’m going to center my class around the observances that we make during the months we’ll be together as a class.  Since the school-wide theme this year is tolerance and social justice (I can SO work with that), it is terribly convenient to match up my reading list with the things that we pause to remember and consider as we make our way through the rest of the school year.  I’ve decided I’m anchoring the class with a single, thematically-appropriate novel for each month.  Let me know what you think:

February is Black History Month – I’ve totally got that knocked; we’ll probably be reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X (which I’m 99.9% sure none of my kids has read, though they may have seen the movie, but I doubt even that), but I’m still waiting to hear back from Carson about whether or not he thinks we should read Native Son together.   We’ll probably watch Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, or maybe Amistad… or maybe Mississippi Burning… and we’ll likely see scenes from Denzel Washington’s stunning portrayal of Brother Malcolm, whether we read X or not.  I’ve also got plenty of primary source documents to go over (like, you know, the Constitution and speeches from Reconstruction to President Obama.  I just bought a GORGEOUS tome full of Dr. King’s writing that I can’t wait to have a closer look at).  I’ve also got relevant poetry up to hereDone!

March is Women’s History Month, and I struggled a bit here.  I was thinking of having The Secret Life of Bees as the novel, interspersed with some short stories and poetry and, probably, some primary source documents, too, but I was not confident about my novel choice and I really needed some guidance on how best to represent women’s literature (and not just women writers, either, but works that show women as something other than a victim or a showpiece).  I’m about 90% convinced that I’m going to go with Khalid Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns (even though I’ve not read it yet, people whose opinions about such things I trust have told me to go for it).  The other 10% is resting on The Handmaid’s Tale; I’m still waiting to hear opinions on which I should put on my reading list before the syllabus is final.

April is Genocide Remembrance month (Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – is usually celebrated in April; I’m making it a month-long theme).  I’ve decided that I’m going to read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee with my students.  I’ve never read it before, and *I* want to; plus, I like the idea of looking at the American genocide (I also really like the idea of approaching the material fresh with the students.  By the time we get to this unit, we should be a pretty cohesive community and they’ll trust me enough to let me lead them through something that’s new to ALL of us).  I’ve got MORE than enough resources for this unit from my work with the Holocaust center, so I’m all set here.

May is Mental Health Awareness month.  The novel will be The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and I’m probably going to look at The Yellow Wallpaper, too.  I’m also interested in dissecting Poe’s Raven, and maybe Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde… or Hamlet.  There are plenty of poems about insanity (or, at the very least, mental instability), but I’m looking for suggestions here, too; I THINK I have enough material for the month, but I’m open to more.

June is Gay Pride Month and, believe it or not, I had a really hard time coming up with the novel to anchor this unit.  I didn’t know of any YA / high school-appropriate novels with GLBTQ themes – I CAN’T teach Brokeback; even though my school is pretty liberal, I’m pretty sure I can’t squeak that by – so I turned to NPR and found a review of Gay Pride Month reading, where I found out about Bow Grip.  A copy is coming to me from Amazon as we speak.  I’ve got plenty of novels by GLBTQ AUTHORS, but none that come to mind that have the themes I want to talk about; I’m hoping that this novel hits my proverbial spot without poking too many parents in uncomfortable places.

I’m TERRIBLY excited for the new semester to begin.  I’m sure I’m going to be documenting this adventure pretty carefully; I’m betting it’s one that I’m going to want to come back to in years to come.

* In case you were wondering about the title of this post, it’s a quote from one of my favorite films, The Hunt for Red October, and is one that my husband and I trot out quite a bit.  It fits in a lot of places, and it fits here.

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Filed under book geek, colleagues, concerns, critical thinking, Dream Course, film as literature, great writing, history, Holocaust, I love my job, lesson planning, Literature, parental units, reading, rhetoric, success!, Teaching

My Favorite Kid

The truth is, they’re ALL my favorites (and don’t you roll your eyes at me; I really DO love all my kids).

Right now, though, this kid is my favorite.  His group has been tasked with an in-depth analysis of a poem or song using the tools and techniques we went over in class last week.  He was inspired, after overhearing a conversation I had on Thursday with the music theory teacher, to have a look at The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.   Get a load of this awesome shit I found in my inbox!

*****
Mrs. Chili,
While looking at the song, it started to sound like it was an epic. I can back it almost up but not quite. I was wondering if you considered it an epic or not.

G

Dear G,

The term “epic” has been used in modern times to define something that has a broad, sweeping sort of feel to it, but that’s not the literary definition of an epic.

The general “rules” for an epic are that the hero has to have some kind of great national or cosmic significance.  The story often covers a great deal of geographical distance – one of the conventions is that the hero goes away from home (often for some heroic battle or noble cause) and encounters all kinds of trouble getting home (often to his one true love who is, of course, waiting chastely for him).  It often (though not always) begins “in media res” (in the middle of the story).  There are usually supernatural elements that both hinder and help the hero in whatever it is he’s doing,  Finally, the epic – the classic epic, that is – is meant to serve as a sort of national or cultural lesson that helps a particular people establish or reinforce an identity.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an epic in the classic sense of the word (as is The Hobbit).  The argument can be made (as I did in class) that Forrest Gump is an epic (the “supernatural forces” aren’t plainly in evidence – we don’t actually SEE spirits or gods or whatever helping him along – but it DOES serve to reinforce some of the more basic values in the American culture).  Of course, The Odyssey is an epic (and, really, the standard for defining the genre).

I don’t think, really, that The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald fits the classic definition.  If we were to categorize it into a literary genre, I’d be more inclined to call it a narrative poem (a poem that tells a specific story) with the feel of an elegy, which is a poem that is meant as a lamentation for someone who has died.  The classic form of elegy is written in couplets with rhyming last words: though the Edmund Fitzgerald doesn’t follow that style, the general tone and specific purpose of the song DOES match with the intent of the elegy.

How much do I love that you’re thinking about this kind of stuff?  You rock my world, kid; thanks!

love!

Mrs. Chili

****

I love my job!

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Filed under analysis, critical thinking, I can't make this shit up..., I love my job, Poetry, success!, Teaching, the good ones