Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Case for Balancing the High School Literature Curriculum - Part I

I went into college with grandiose plans of taking a separate class each for Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare.  I was going to be a English major and then become a teacher.  Because, after all, "Teaching is just presenting information enthusiastically," my pompous, arrogant, college freshmen self thought.  So I plugged along, taking not one but two classes on Shakespeare (fun!), two very bad Survey of American Literature courses (ugh), American Novels 1945-Present (okay) where I struggled to read a novel a week, and immediately dropped some course on early English novels that were written as a series of letters to avoid being scandalous (barf).

My first semester as a junior, I realized that in addition to presenting information enthusiastically, I would also need a teaching license, and apparently my enthusiasm alone wouldn't get me one of those.  So I reluctantly began taking education courses.  Schooling in the United States.  Boring.  Literacy and the Learner.  Could be interesting, but the adjunct professor just preached about multiple intelligence theory most of the time.  Really, both classes could have been better if they weren't one evening a week for three hours.

And then there was Adolescent Literature.

That is where I learned what teaching really is.  That there is a science to it.  That there were strategies that taught students best.  It was in this class that I fell in love with book clubs.  And where I read all the literature that I had never read as an adolescent.  Monster.  Son of the Mob.  Feed.  Speak.  The House on Mango Street.  Out of the Dust.  My middle and high school years would have been so much brighter with books that I could relate to.

The only book that qualified as young adult literature I read in middle or high school for a language arts class was Are You There God, It's Me, Margret.  Never read it?  Go read the synopsis.  Right now.  Really.  I'll wait.

What adolescent boy would want to read that book1?

I finished my English degree with a double concentration in education and literature.  It seemed silly not to finish the literature concentration after spending two years in literature courses.  But taking those classes in conjunction with Adolescent Literature and my own personal life experience embedded in me a dislike of the canon, especially teaching it.  Why teach that when there was so much good literature that spoke to my adolescent self?  What great books I missed out on.  What great books my students would be missing out on.

I started this post because I'm in the second week of my Action Research Proposal class, working to finish up my masters.  I thought I was going to do my research on using young adult literature in book clubs to connect with the canon.  And as I was freewriting on that I found myself asking again, why is it so important to teach the canon?  How will I explain to my students why they should care?

The next day, I asked my colleagues at school.  And they had some pretty good answers, which I'll paraphrase below as I understand them, because it's Sunday and I want to ask before quoting their e-mails:
  • The canon, better than anything else, addresses the issues that are at the heart of the human condition.  What other text on the same themes can equal To Kill a Mockingbird?  None that I know of. 
  • Cultural relevancy and the ability to understand allusions to greater works isn't just good for cocktail parties.  It actually makes you smarter because you're able to understand so much more.
  • Without reading enough of the canon, you cannot understand most of Western Civilization and how those in power remain in power.  Instead of being an agent of change against the status quo, you are a cog in their machine.  The Republic by Plato was used as an example text.
I realize now, after writing this, that "Why teach the canon?" isn't the question.  And it isn't "How do I use multiple forms of media to help students engage with the canon," though I'll be working on that this next semester as well.

The purpose of my action research is to determine ways to integrate young adult literature into the high school language arts classroom.  

Adolescents need stories about characters like them.  It increases the chances that they will become lifelong readers and increases chances they will continue to read other works, including the canon, after they are done with school.  Reading the canon is important.  Reading the canon in school is important.  But not to the point of excluding other texts that can change students' lives.

1. But I did read it, and liked the parts about struggling to choose a religion.  In fact, that's all my book report focused on.  Props to Judy Blume for publishing a book on the topic in the 1970s - it was banned all over the place.  Go back.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year Resolutions

As winter break approached, I noticed that I had become complacent with some areas of my practice.  I don't think that this is the complacency that comes with too many years of experience1.  I think this is the complacency that comes with figuring out how to be both a good parent and a good teacher simultaneously.

At the same time, I came across this post by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris via my undergrad education professor, @CindyOA.  I walked away thinking about this:
If you were to draw your inner teacher, what would he/she look like? How does he/she feel? Excited? Nervous? Overwhelmed? In reading the work of Martha Beck–which encourages us to pay close attention to our emotions because they are our inner compass–we’ve discovered that our inner teacher’s emotions can serve as our teaching compass. After teaching, thinking, feeling, writing, reflecting–lather, rinse, repeat–we’ve learned to trust our inner teacher, and to understand that, when she is lethargic or angry we need to adjust something in our practice or our thinking, or even both. As we have explored the connection between our energy, our effectiveness, and our teaching, we have arrived at a four big principles that help our teaching compass stay on true north. We call these four guiding tenets “The Four Intentions” and, if we are mindful of them, our inner teacher feels like this:
We use these intentions to plan lessons, purposefully considering each tenet as we design instruction. We also use them to reflect on lessons we teach. These intentions have become the framework for all our thinking about instruction, even about education in general. Here is an explanation for each intention, and questions you can ask yourself to reflect on how well a particular lesson or some other work addresses “The Four Intentions.”
Intention 1: Alignment (with our inner teacher)
In these days of aligning curricula, instruction, and language with performance standards, we offer, instead, as our primary teaching intention alignment with our highest purpose for teaching–that is, a focus on lifelong learning. This includes a reconnection with our original visions for our teaching selves and a reawakening of our loftiest visions for students as learners [emphasis added].  Staying true to the alignment intention means keeping our sights set on our long-term outcomes and the ways in which our instructional decisions can affect who children will grow up to become. The alignment intention is all about recognizing and action on our agency as teachers, and using this agency to empower students. To evaluate your work against the alignment intention, ask yourself the following questions:
  • Does my inner teacher, my highest teaching self, feel safe (even happy) with this instructional choice? How do I know?
  • How does this work/decision/lesson  show students their power as learners?
  • Am I excited about this work/lesson? Why?
While flying through all parts of life by the seat of my pants for the last two years, I've lost some of the practices that make my inner teacher happy.  He isn't "lethargic or angry," but he is . . . uncomfortable.  Unsatisfied with his current performance.  I've let some things slide, and he doesn't like watching them slide.

So.  Here's what I'm going to do about it.

Build Better Relationships

Back when I was a second year teacher and struggling with classroom management, I began using conversation calendars (Tovani, 2004, p. 106-110) with my students - exit slips that allow me 15 to 30 second one-on-one conversations with each of my students.

In 2009, when I was only working half-time, it was no problem to go through 90 of these each afternoon.  With six classes, however, I need to set up a rotation through my classes, hitting two per week.  Logistically, this has been a little bit more than my toddler-fried brain could handle.  But I'm recommitting myself, setting reminder alarms on my phone if I need to, because the written conversations I have with students make a huge difference in my student-teacher relationships.

When I was a fourth-year teacher, I wrote and responded to student letters quarterly, asking students how the units of study went for them and what I could do as a teacher to help their learning.  Every year, I try to respond to letters my students write at the beginning of the school year where they tell me a little bit about themselves.  Lately, I've been getting through five in one class, maybe 20 in another, but in a majority of classes, zero.

I'm going to end first semester (February here in the Pacific Northwest) with teacher evaluations for my students to provide me feedback on how I can improve, and start second semester with letters from my students that I'll write one group letter back in response that explain my rationale for any disliked activities and address student suggestions.

Emphasize Proceedures

When I was a younger teacher, I was much more of a control freak.  Things had to be done a certain way.  If one student spoke out of turn, it felt chaotic to me.

Thankfully, I've mellowed2, but I'm a little too far in the other direction.  It takes my juniors five minutes of reminders at the beginning of class to start their sustained silent reading.  Often, I have to threaten lunch detention in order to get everyone quietly reading.  That's silly.

I listed proceedures in my syllabus - the same ones I've had since my second year of teaching.  I just need to refresh my students on them, and start enforcing them.  (I haven't been.  At all.)

When entering the classroom:
  1. Get your materials from the filing cabinet in the room.
  2. Be in your seat with all your materials when the bell rings.
  3. When the bell rings, immediately and quietly begin the warm-up exercise.
When reading:
  1. Reading is thinking.  It is easier to think when it is silent and there are few distractions.  Do not talk when reading.
  2. When you do need to talk to the teacher or a partner, whisper.
  3. Fully focus on reading during silent reading time.
When writing:
  1. Writing is thinking.  It is easier to think when it is silent and there are few distractions.  Do not talk when writing.
  2. When you do need to talk to the teacher or a partner, whisper.
  3. Use the entire writing time working on writing.
When leaving the classroom:
  1. The teacher dismisses, not the bell.
  2. Leave your workspace cleaner than you found it and return all materials to the right place.
  3. When your workspace is clean, sit in your chair and wait to be dismissed.
  4. When dismissed, push your chair in if necessary.
  5. Turn in calendars and any other assignments on your way out the door.

Grade During Block Prep

This is my seventh year teaching, and I'm back at the school where I started my teaching career.  I work with a fantastic department and have a great administrator.  So this year I felt comfortable playing a role as a small, unnoticeable agent of change.  Most of them have to do with reading - posting student book reviews on a Twitter account other students can follow, creating and distributing book review index cards that sit in the back pocket of library books.

These small crusades3 are fun.  And often take place during my prep time.  And then I have a toddler at home.  Which means I've gotten behind on grading.  I even got a holiday card from a great student that encouraged me to have a nice break and enjoy the time off but also to grade her writing.

Thus my 88 minutes of Thursday prep4 shall find me at my desk, grading the papers that are so much less fun than crusades for changing school culture.  But feedback is important too, so I'll do it.  (And during my Monday prep, I'll make stickers with qr codes that lead to book trailers for the library TAs to put on books.  Bwahahaha!)

1. If it is, then I need to find a new job.  Go back.
2. It's all about the yoga.  Go back.
3. That only I am noticing and pretending is worthwhile, I'm sure.  Go back.
4. And weekend naps.  And evenings.  Go back.