Category Archives: education

Teaching Tuesday: Fight!

During SRT (student resource time) I heard a shrill noise coming from outside my room. At first I couldn’t quite place it, but when it rang out a second time, I realized it was a whistle. A few years back every teacher in my school was given a whistle and told we should attach it to the lanyards that hold our IDs, which we wear around our necks. Although mine has faithfully been there ever since, I’ve never once blown it. In fact, in the 13 years I’ve been at my current school not only have I never had to blow my whistle, but I’ve never heard anyone else blow theirs either.

That’s not to say we don’t have fights at my school. We do. Sadly, they’ve been occurring with an unnerving frequency lately. However, I cannot actually recall a time there has been a fight upstairs, let alone in my hallway.

My school has two floors, but there are really only three hallways upstairs. Two of the house the science department (and really the second hallway is really only like half a hallway–there are only 4 classrooms in it). The other houses all 12 of the English classrooms,  and four history classrooms. The rest of the school is on the first floor.

Since our hallways are not very wide and they don’t hold any large intersections or gathering places (like the library, gym, cafeteria, auditorium, etc), they aren’t the place to hang out. Those honors all go to downstairs areas, which is why almost every fight that has ever happened, has happened downstairs.

But there I was, standing in my classroom listening to what I now realized was an emergency whistle. Since I knew my newspaper kids would be 100% ok for a minute while I checked out the situation, I told them to stay put and headed into the hallway. Next door, our theater teacher was ushering two boys out of her classroom as carefully as possible. Thankfully her yell, followed by the whistle shocked the boys so much that they stopped thrown punches for a moment. When she started yelling at them to get in the hallway, amazingly, they went.

When they saw not one, not two, but three other English teachers in the hallway as they emerged, they thought better of returning to punches. As she was telling one boy to stay put and one to head to the other side of the hallway, she told us that they’d started a fight in her room. One of the boys was still very upset and started punching the wall. Since there were even more teachers in the hallway now, I told her I’d get the on duty police officer upstairs and ran back into my classroom.

As soon as the call was done, I went back in the hallway and then stood between the two boys, one of whom would not stop pacing, while she went back into her room to call one of the vice principals to make an official report.

Even though there were several other teachers in the hallway, they were all hanging back a bit. I was the only one directly between the boys. I wasn’t worried as they seemed to have calmed down, or at least decided throwing more punches with a cop on the way was the quickest way to get taken out to the squad car rather than just the office.

The officer escorted the first boy, who was obviously more agitated, to the office first. Even he didn’t want to risk them getting back into it. I stayed near the other boy. When he too was removed, our drama teacher told me that she was watching the boys for another teacher who had to go to a meeting. The boys started off joking with each other in a fairly friendly manner and the next thing she knew, they were swinging.

Ironically, a student had just asked her the week before what she’d do if a fight broke out near her. She laughed and said she’d yell for our colleague across the hall who happens to not only be one of the two guys in our department, but also the basketball coach. It was his kids who got in the fight in her room and since he was in a meeting, he couldn’t help at all.

I wonder how many people realize that teachers not only have to know all of our content AND be able to relate it to an children who often wants nothing to do with it, but we also have to put ourselves physically between those children, risking harm to ourselves, to make sure they don’t beat each other bloody.

None of my education classes taught me how to separate a fight.

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Free Reading Friday: Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Simon and the Homo Sapiens AgendaSimon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by  Becky Albertalli is yet another book on the this year’s Rosie list, so I had to read it. Before I picked it up, I had no idea what the book was about. The title was intriguing though and even though I’ve read comments that the cover is keep no of boring, I like the faceless body and the title as a quote bubble.

It only took me about 20 pages to get into Simon’s story. My favorite chapters were definitely the emails between Simon and Blue. I love how cute and genuine their emails feel. I love how vulnerable they are with each other. And even though there was a part of me who wanted Blue to cave and reveal who he was to Simon much sooner, I understand why Albertalli had him wait. Blue’s reluctance to truly reveal himself to Simon (and the world) reflects just how scary first relationships can be. They are terrifying when you are straight and conform to all the expectations of society, so I can only imagine how immensely more terrifying they are for LGBT+ teens. Especially in Georgia…or any area that is intensely conservative.

Since my best friend lives in Athens, Georgia, it was doubly fun for me to read this book which is set outside of Atlanta. It was especially great to see Albertalli mention the Junkman’s Daughter since I’ve been to the original store in Athens. I love when I find places I’ve visited in real life in books as well.

Even though I was not thrilled with the idea of going back to school after the break, I was excited about sharing this book with my students. My school has a growing LGBT+ population and I knew I would have a bunch of students who really wanted to read it. I think it is super important for them to find books which portray romantic relationships they can relate to and see themselves reflected in. Sure enough, the second I book talked it, multiple hands reached out for it.

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Teaching Tuesday: Thanksgiving break

My first teaching gig definitely spoiled me when it came to Thanksgiving. Since I worked at a university laboratory school, things worked just a little bit differently.

For those who aren’t in the know, let me explain what I mean by a laboratory school. No, we didn’t have the students penned up like lab animals, but yes, we did experiments on them. Sort of. Laboratory schools, which are few and far between these days, are linked to universities with particularly strong teacher’s colleges. They exist in part to help train would be teachers. They also exist to try out new ideas in education. It’s because of experiments in laboratory schools that different types of scheduling like block 4, block 8, trimesters, balanced calendar, etc exist. Laboratory schools also exist for professors and student to conduct educational research on a wide variety of educational topics.

Don’t worry, everyone who sends their children to laboratory schools does so voluntarily (in fact there is usually a high demand and limited space in them) and with complete knowledge of the experiments, research, etc that goes on in them.

There are tons of perks to both teaching at and attending a lab school. My students were easily able to audit college classes (at almost no cost to them, but only for high school credit), take college classes for credit (at a cost to them, but some of my students graduated from high school with enough credits to be college sophomores), they were able to attend lectures from experts in a variety of fields (I got to take my high school freshmen to hear Elie Wiesel speak before we read his book Night) and, we got extra vacation days.

While we did not get every day off that the university did, we got many off that our city school corporation kids did not. When there were snow days, if the university wasn’t in session or the university closed, we didn’t have to make them up. Also, unlike every other school corporation I’ve ever worked at, we got Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of Thanksgiving week off.

Although it may not seem like much, that one extra day off was so important. My husband’s family lives in North Carolina and instead of having to set off for a 9 hour drive after working a full work day (which put us in NC between 2-3 am), we could sleep in on Wed if we wanted and still be at his parent’s house by dinner time. Plus, we got to spend three full days visiting with both his family and friends. If we decided to visit my folks, who only lived 2 hours away, I had a full day to make sure all of my grading was done so that I could actually have four restful days off.

For the past 14 years I’ve taught in regular ol’ public schools and we’ve only gotten Thursday and Friday off. When our son was born 10 years ago, we made one final trip to visit my husband’s family for Thanksgiving. Despite leaving as soon as my work day was over, we rolled in way too late with a very cranky baby who had major trouble getting back on his schedule and vowed we’d never do it again. That was our last holiday visit to North Carolina.

My in-laws are both semi-retired (my MiL is self-employed), so when we couldn’t make the travel to them work, they decided to travel to us instead. While it is a lot easier when they come here, working a full day on Wednesday still makes the prep work for house guests and Thanksgiving dinner for 11 stressful and the “break” not much of a break.

Luckily this year my in-laws decided to stay at a hotel and take the entire family out for dinner, so I got a bit more of a break.

Still, I was thrilled to learn that my school just released our 2018-2019 calendar and for the first time, we will be getting Wed-Fri off. I’m not quite sure what this will mean, but it may mean a trip to NC to see my in-laws for the holiday, something my son doesn’t remember and my daughter has never experienced.

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Free Reading Friday: The Big Tiny: A Built-it-Myself Memoir

big tinyI have a student who is absolutely obsessed with tiny houses. As long as I have known her, which has been two years now, she has talked about her desire to live in a tiny house. When she first told me about this, I thought she was a little bit crazy. After all, she was talking about having cardboard furniture and all I could think about was her either getting a ton of paper cuts all over her backside or sitting down to watch some TV and having her “chair” collapse.

After she showed me what her dream cardboard furniture looks like, I felt a bit less worried for her. However, I still didn’t think it looked even remotely comfortable, even with pillows and blankets piled on it. But, to each his own, right?

This student is in my AP Language and Composition class and as part of the class, students are required to pick 4 books off of a rather extensive non-fiction book list. Each book has a different project that goes along with it. The first book, which they read over the summer merely has to be annotated. The second book, which they read during the second quarter, gets an essay over the author’s bias. The third book, which they read during the third quarter, also gets an essay, this time over the theme. The final book, which they read during their final quarter of high school requires a creative project which explores both bias and theme.

Although the list I provide has a wide variety of books to suit just about every reading interest, I also allow students to suggest books for me to read and then approve for their essays/project. Due to her love of all things tiny house, she asked me to read The Big Tiny: A Built-it-Myself memoir by Dee Williams.

Unlike some of the books my kids suggest, I was intrigued by this one. I wanted to understand the tiny house craze and what would drive someone to give up a perfectly nice sized house for something smaller than my bedroom.

Williams’ journey from slightly hippy Washington homeowner to full-fledged, living off the grid hippy Washington tiny house owner began after a near fatal illness, which made her re-evaluate her life and her priorities.

Slowly, she began downsizing all of her possessions and building her tiny house. The book chronicles here entire journey from her life before her illness, through her sickness, through building her tiny house (almost completely on her own), to actually living in her house (which she parked in friend’s backyards). It was interesting to see Williams go through the planning process to see what was absolutely vital to her.

It turns out that in order to have the size of house that would fit on the trailer she was having custom built, everything would have to fit in a 6X11 area. This meant that there was really no way for her to have even a shower in her tiny home. She also made a rather large measuring mistake and could not fit the small fridge she had intended to use in her new pad. So, she decided she could get by with a cooler. After all, she only has one hot plate burner, so it’s not like she was planning gourmet meals. Since any sort of space heater would be an insane fire hazard in the house, heat was also out. Instead, she invested in thermal underwear, lots of think socks and warm blankets for her sleeping loft. She tells stories of the frost and snow right above her head as she wakes up seeing her breath each morning.

Luckily for Williams, she’s not completely alone in her tiny house. For the majority of the book she has her beloved dog with her. A dog she carries up into the sleeping loft every night and then back down each morning. This leads to more than one slip, one of which does some real damage. Williams was also fortunate not to have to buy any land for her tiny house. Two good friends of hers allowed her to “park” her house in their backyard. While technically illegal for her to live in someone else’s backyard, as long as she claimed to be the caregiver to her friend’s aging aunt, she could live in her house with no interference. Which is exactly what she did.

Living in her friends’ backyard solves a few issues for her. First, she actually has access to a power source if she needs it. Although she uses solar panels to charge the rather large battery which she uses to power her burner and laptop, if need be, she can also plug her tiny house into her friends’ power source. In addition, she had an easy place to shower, negating her original plan to shower at truck stops. This arrangement also gave her access to safer food storage and an extended ability to cook. Since she had not only befriended Rita, the aunt, but was also helping to care for her, she had daily trips into full-sized homes.

The access to some of these amenities makes it easier to understand how she can survive in only 84 square feet.

Although the book is interesting, I think at times Williams comes off as a bit sanctimonious. While I cannot, and would not want her lifestyle, I did like looking into a life so very different than my own.

For anyone interested in seeing inside her home, here is a video she made not long after the book came out. Amazingly enough, since the book has come out, Williams has actually downsized even further, giving up her palatial 84 square feet for just 54. This time she does have a shower–it’s just outdoors. Check out her new house here.

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Teaching Tuesdays: A fear for the future

Sometimes after a long round of grading I find myself seriously worrying about the future of our country. Tonight was one of those nights.

I spent about 5 hours this weekend reading over outlines for research papers. Although it was only one set of outlines for one class of 30 kids and only 27 of the kids actually turned in an outline, it took me just over 5 hours to grade them. That’s right, I spent about 13 minutes , making extensive comments and suggestions on each outline.

This might not have been so distressing if we hadn’t just spent the last three weeks almost completely dedicated to the research process. Although kids did not have the full 85 minute class period solely to work on their research papers, they did get between 15-30 minutes every single day just to work. The rest of the class time was spent going over how to find credible sources, how to take notes, how to write a thesis statement, how to put together an outline and how to avoid plagiarism. They had three straight weeks with about 60 minutes each day dedicated to the research process in some way.

I also might not be quite so disheartened if these weren’t seniors who have been through the research paper not once, not twice, but thrice before this year. Yes, that’s right, every single student at my school goes through the research process every single year. At this point my students should have written at least 3 other research papers, which means they’ve been taught how to find credible sources, how to take notes, how to write thesis statements, how to put together an outline and how to avoid plagiarism at least 3 other times. And that’s just in their English classes.

I also might not be as discouraged if I had not provided them an outline template which told them every single piece of information they’d need for their outline, gave them a structure they could use and had reminders like for every A there must be a B. All I asked was that they delete the instructions and my sample content from the outline before using the template. Out of the 27 kids who turned in their outlines, 7 of them turned in outlines that still had part (or all) of my instructions and sample content on them.

Only one of my students turned in an outline that I am sure will lead to a really good first draft. The rest were so lacking in details (and all but 3 were lacking any real research) that all of my contents had to be generic ones about the purpose of their papers because I wasn’t sure what their actual content really was.

Now, I know some people will argue that outlines are archaic and teaching kids to do formal outlining is old-fashioned. While that might be true, when kids don’t do any pre-writing or organizational activities, as most will not do unless forced to, their writing is even more of a train wreck. At least these tragic outlines give them a bit of a starting point. I could point out areas they’d need to expand on, or areas not mentioned in their thesis, or topics that need to be grouped together. I teach my students how to outline in the hopes that they will at least sit down and gather their thoughts and research together. My hope is that they will look at how their information is connected, see patterns and group like material together. It doesn’t always work out well (like the outlines I just graded), but when they don’t have an outline to work from it is so very worse.

My hope is that they will take all of my outline comments to heart and their first drafts, which are due on Thursday, will be marked improvements. Sadly, I know that in order for this to happen I will have to make them open their outlines in class and have them read over all of my comments right in front of me.

What worries me is that of my 30 students, 24 of them are college bound in some way. I don’t know what they are going to do next year when their professors do not have to be as patient or kind.

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Free Reading Friday: NEED

NEEDI grabbed NEED by Joelle Charbonneau because it is one of the Eliot Rosewater book nominees for the 2017-2018 school year. One of my goals this year is to read all of The Rosie books. I didn’t really have any idea what the book was about before I picked it up. All I knew was that a student had returned it to the library after only reading 50 pages or so and said it wasn’t for them.

I’m not sure what that student was talking about, because I found the book pretty darn compelling. I love that the book starts off by establishing the difference between a WANT and a NEED. In our society today, we’ve gotten so used to having our needs met that we tend to say we need things that we definitely just want. I know I am as guilty as everyone else. I say I need a new fitness tracker, but I don’t. I have one that works just fine. And even if it didn’t, it’s certainly not a NEED…it’s a want.

As the characters find out in this book, there is a big difference between a WANT and a NEED.

Kaylee, the main character has a definite NEED, even though it’s not for her. Her younger brother needs a new kidney and not only is she not a match, but when her father finds out about his son’s disease, he disappears without getting tested.

Enter her best friend Nate, who’s just found out about a social media website called NEED. The website offers the promise to “join your friends in discovering how much better life can be when you are presented with an anonymous way to express your thoughts and are given the tools to get the things you need.” The premise of the website is simple: Ask for something you NEED, then do a little task the website asks of you and your NEED will be fulfilled.

Nate’s brother gets an iPhone and all he has to do is send friend requests to 5 of his friends to join the website, which is open only to students at their high school. Sounds great, right? Such a simple act for such a great reward.

Of course as Kaylee knows, nothing really comes for free. Although skeptical, she asks for what she needs: a new kidney for her brother.

As the story unfolds, students are asked to do more and more to fulfill their needs. One boy, spurned by the girl he likes, agrees to leave a package anonymously on her doorstep. He thinks nothing of it, as he believes he truly needs the acne cream, which he is convinced is the reason he was spurned, and leaving a package he’s not allowed to look in is really no big deal. Of course, he doesn’t know about her nut allergy or the nuts in the cookies.

NEED is a compelling story that explores the depths people will sink to when they believe they are anonymous. It also explores the idea of taking responsibilities for our actions, what we truly need versus what we merely want and the dangers of social media, all of which are excellent topics for a YA novel.

As someone who has been teaching teenagers for twenty years now, I have seen just how dangerous and addictive social media can be for teenagers and I think this book is one that will not only resonate with teens, but hopefully make them stop and think about their activities online, their own culpability for their actions and the way they treat their peers.

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Wildcard Wednesday: Pop Chart Lab 100 Essential Novels

Pop chart fullSome time last fall I saw a Facebook post advertising Pop Chart Lab’s 100 Essential Novels poster. I was instantly smitten.

This is the perfect gift for anyone who loves books. The minute I saw it, I knew I had to have it. I told my husband it was on my Christmas list, which thrilled him because I’m very bad at giving him suggestions for Christmas presents. I’m very bad at giving anyone gift suggestions for myself. I love coming up with gifts for others, but for some reason when it’s my turn to make the list, everything I want goes right out of my head. But I wanted this chart.

Like the wonderful human being he is, he bought it for me. I unrolled it and delighted at all the shiny gold sections I was going to get to scratch off. I didn’t start scratching right away though. As much as I love the poster, I never had any intention of hanging it up at my house. This poster was destined to hang in my English classroom, hopefully as inspiration for my students who might be looking for a challenge OR who might just need a good book to read.

When we returned from break, I immediately hung the poster in my classroom, right on my front white board. I found the prefect place for it where students could see it, but it was still technically behind my desk. I didn’t want anyone to get the silly idea that they could scratch any books off the chart. I could just see it being too tempting for a few of them.

Once it was up, I started raving about it to all of my classes. My Advanced Placement English students were a bit more excited about it than my Film Lit kids were, but that was probably a combination of knowing me longer and being a bit more enthusiastic about reading. They immediately asked me how many of the books I’d read.

I’ll admit it was with a bit of chagrin that I had to reply I’d only read 35 of them. Yes, that’s right, even though I’d read over 120 books last year, only 35 of all the books I’ve read in my lifetime were on the 100 Essential Novels chart. I’m not sure exactly who decided these were the 100 books everyone should read. It’s not like Pop Chart Lab is a known authority on the subject. Many of the books on the list were not ones I’d read, even though I’d read several other books by the authors.

For example, I’d never read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, but had read A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times and Bleak House. I’ll admit that a part of me wanted to scratch it off just because I felt it didn’t really matter which Dickens novel I’d read, just that I’d read Dickens. I mean, why Great Expectations and not A Tale of Two Cities (which I personally feel is the superior book)? It’s so arbitrary!

And while I may have railed a bit about this to my students, I also set a goal to read all 100 of the books on the list. I knew I wasn’t going to do it all this year. So, I set a more reasonable goal for myself: 1 book off the chart each month. That seemed completely manageable to me.

Pop Chart close upI am proud to say that with my completion of A Passage to India last night, I have officially made it halfway through the list.

That’s right, I’ve read 50 of the 100 essential novels. That also means that I’ve exceeded both my Goodreads goal for 2017 (123/100 books) and my Pop Chart Lab goal (15/12 books)…and it’s only November. Granted, I don’t know how many more books I’ll be able to get in before the of the year, but I am going to do my best to get at least 1 more essential novel and at least a dozen more books in before the new year rolls around.

I know it may seem silly, but having little goals like this, and especially ones with fun scratch off pictures, really makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something. Sure, it may take me anywhere from 3.5-5 years to read all of the novels on my Pop Chart Lab poster, but that’s ok. I’ll slog through them all. Glancing at the list I think this is completely achievable. Thanks to this list I’ve even found a few new favorite books (I’m looking at you Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao).

Of course I do know which book I am saving for the absolute last book I will read off the chart: Moby Dick. I’m dreading this tale of human frailty and whale blubber.

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