Ho, ho, whole lotta present ideas

Image via Microsoft

We are officially in the Season of Giving (or, as my husband likes to call it, when our pockets hemorrhage money).  To that end, here’s a list of ten great holiday gift ideas for the loved ones in your life who happen to be teachers!

  1. Massage gift certificate…I’m not the only teacher in town whose shoulders crack when I lie down in bed, thoroughly depleted of energy.  Nothing says “happy holidays” more than the gift of relaxation.
  2. Scented candles…Aromatherapy soothes and relaxes the mind; hopefully it also drives away the memory of what your loved one’s hand touched while moving desks at 7:00 A.M. in the morning.
  3. Gym membership…According to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales, “νοῦς ὑγιὴς ἐν σώματι ὑγιεῖ,” or “a healthy body can sustain a healthy mind.”  And although Thales never placed in the Olympics, I tend to believe him: exercise clears the mind and boosts energy levels, while curtailing the ubiquitous, less-than-desirable, frumpy teacher look.  (You know what I’m talking about.)
  4. Coffee gift card…While we are on the subject of boosting energy levels, the dirty little secret of the teaching profession is that we are all addicted.  To caffeine, that is.  So why not fuel the addiction?
  5. Amazon or Barnes and Noble gift card…I have never met a teacher who did not love a great book.  Give the gift of education to an educator!
  6. Magazine subscription…Many educational journals offer inspirational ideas for teachers, but if you wish to steer clear of work-related gifts, fun, carefree magazines abound.  My favorite?  Mental Floss, which provides hysterical trivia that is true and unbelievable, all at the same time.
  7. Restaurant gift card…Teachers love to kick off their weekends at local happy hours.  There, they can dish about their grammatical pet peeves to their hearts’ contents (“what is so hard about using the word whose correctly?”) in the company of adults, and only adults, before they make their ways back home to play Words with Friends against their coworkers, from the comforts of their couches.
  8. Hot chocolate gift set…A steaming cup of Ghirardelli hot chocolate almost makes grading bearable, while keeping your favorite teacher toasty during the winter months.
  9. Journal…Journaling is a great way to unwind at the end of the day, and it is also a great opportunity for teachers to do some of their own writing for a change!
  10. Photo books…Taking the time to compile your favorite memories with your loved one over the past year is a creative and heartfelt way to show that you care.  Any teacher would appreciate these beautiful works of art, which have become very affordable lately; check out The Great Photo Book Round-Up Review, which is hands down the best review on the subject.  (Hint: skip to the last page of the review if you just care to read the list of winners.)  My advice: after reading the aforementioned photo book review, choose a photo book company and sign up for e-mails on its website.  You will receive great deals (usually to the tune of 40% of during a particular week, or buy one, get one 50% off) that can’t be beat.

Adding new books to the curriculum…a brainstorming session

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the fact that students need to read current, more relevant material in their English classes.  Then, the stars aligned: when I met with my principal this week, she asked me if there is anything that she can do for me.  I told her that she could help me infuse new titles into the sophomore curriculum.  Then, at our English Department meeting yesterday, the heads of the department mentioned that if we sophomore teachers wanted to discuss new titles, we should brainstorm a list of books to present to them!

While all of this sounds great, there is just one teensy-weensy little problem:

English teachers don’t have time to read for fun!  We spend the school year reading students’ essays, as well as refreshing our memories on the books that we are currently teaching.

I am, thus, in a bit of a quandary: I would love more time to read books that have been recommended to me, but the department needs the list ASAP.

Here are two books that have been recommended to me today:

1.  One of my coworkers suggested What is the What.  Here is the book description, according to Amazon.com:

“In a heartrending and astonishing novel, Eggers illuminates the history of the civil war in Sudan through the eyes of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee now living in the United States. We follow his life as he’s driven from his home as a boy and walks, with thousands of orphans, to Ethiopia, where he finds safety — for a time. Valentino’s travels, truly Biblical in scope, bring him in contact with government soldiers, janjaweed-like militias, liberation rebels, hyenas and lions, disease and starvation — and a string of unexpected romances. Ultimately, Valentino finds safety in Kenya and, just after the millennium, is finally resettled in the United States, from where this novel is narrated. In this book, written with expansive humanity and surprising humor, we come to understand the nature of the conflicts in Sudan, the refugee experience in America, the dreams of the Dinka people, and the challenge one indomitable man faces in a world collapsing around him.”

While I have not read this book, it sounds fascinating, and I can “sell” this book to my department and to my principal for a variety of reasons.  It is…

  1. contemporary.
  2. a work of nonfiction (which HUGE because of schools’ increasing push to have our students ready for the EAP).
  3. about real-world issues that continue to exist.
  4. about an immigrant to the United States (which is highly relevant to our students’ backgrounds).
  5. written by a local, award-winning author.

2.  One of my long-time friends (and former colleagues) mentioned The Hunger Games to me today; her school is adding this book to their sophomore curriculum.  Here is Amazon.com’s book description:

“In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called, “The Hunger Games,” a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. The terrain, rules, and level of audience participation may change but one thing is constant: kill or be killed.”

While I know that this novel has become a huge phenomenon, and a movie will come out soon, I wonder if it would be too easy for the students, because (I believe) it was written for teenagers.  Then again, if the point is to teach students skills, and not plots, wouldn’t an easier book, make the teaching of these skills easier?

I have been attempting to use the Lexile Framework for Reading to come up with books, but this has not helped greatly, so I am sending this plea out to all of you…

Any suggestions???

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I rule!

Image via Rekord

DOL stands for Daily Oral Language (published by Great Source), and all English teachers at my school are asked/forced/begged to teach grammar in the following way:

Every day, students receive two highly dysfunctional sentences which they must correct.  Then we pray that they have learned grammar.  These sentences include the politically incorrect darnel dont have no reason too question them instructions but he does want a explanation for this here exam and although we had 25 inches of snow last Winter the bushes appear to be alright pedro noted.

Even with the aforementioned insipid grammar material in hand, one student asked a very interesting question today, after we had finished correcting the day’s sentences:

Why do we capitalize I?

Why, indeed?  After all, it is the only pronoun that we capitalize.  When did this tradition begin?  What are the social and political implications?  Inspired by this question, which I have never entertained, I Googled the matter, which led me to the highly interesting (and pretty darn funny) New York Times article, “On Language – Me, Myself, and I.”  (On a side note, the fact that the word Google has become a verb is another interesting grammatical factoid.)

This article first gives an overview of how different languages have handled capitalization in general, and then, more specifically, whether or not they capitalize I.  Then, the author, Caroline Winter, elucidates the history of the pronoun I in the English language, and gives an example of a culture (Rastafarian) which has changed this ubiquitous pronoun for the more spiritual “I and I.”  Finally, Winter dives into the political implications of the use of this pronoun in speeches.

This is a fantastic article that is pertinent to our students today while remaining entertaining. It can be used to discuss the importance of grammar in today’s world, as well as what changes in grammar represent or imply.  How’s that for daily oral language?

Silent reading is the gift that keeps on giving

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Sunlight fills the room.  Soft, soothing music fills the air.  I look up, and thirty-three teenagers, each one holding a different book in front of himself/herself, are reading, spellbound. I pinch myself as I thank the universe for the advent of silent reading.

It wasn’t always like this.  My first two years of teaching, I had students keep a log of the books and page numbers that they read.  I urged students to bring books from home, and I attempted to initiate conversations about what they were reading after each silent reading period.

The result?  Students kept logs sporadically because they became bored with their originally-selected books, and could only muster up the energy to read a few pages a day.  Many forgot to bring books from home, and stared at the ceiling rather than read the textbooks that I plopped on their desks as an alternative.  The forced conversations went nowhere.  And, what’s worse, students tried to sneak text messaging and/or homework time into the time allotted for silent reading.

So how did silent reading become the Godsend it currently is?

  • I do not require any assignment with silent reading.  Students need to learn that reading is FUN, and when an assignment (even something as simple as a book log, reflection, or book report) is given, reading becomes a (negative) chore that students will learn to resent, not love.
  • I play music.  When silent reading is too silent, students become fidgety and uncomfortable.  Remember, this is the overstimulated generation.  Therefore, I have created a YouTube playlist with relaxing piano music for the students to listen to.  (This is better than my two previous sources – Skyfm.com and Pandora, which both now contain commercials.)
  • I make students clear their desks.  All writing utensils, binders, notebooks, papers, purses, backpacks, etc. should be on the floor, away from students’ desks and laps (a backpack on someone’s lap means that s/he is texting behind it–why else would any self-respecting human being jam a backpack between himself/herself and a desk for one hour?).
  • I model this skill.  At the beginning of the year, I read along with my students for the fifteen-minute increments of time.  As the year progresses, I wean away from reading along with students in order to catch up with some of my own work (taking attendance, grading an assignment, or updating the class website).  With some groups, you will have to model this skill until the end of the year.  With others, you will be able to wean yourself away from the reading like I did.
  • I provide the books.  Students will not always have books available at home; while I encourage students to bring their own books from home, I provide a large library of books in my classroom.  At my school, teachers donate books that they have finished reading by leaving them on a special shelf in the photocopy room.  Whenever I see a book on the shelf, I snatch it up and add it to my library.  The books I have on my bookshelf are extremely varied: I have books that are at the elementary school level, all the way up to classics.  I include fiction and nonfiction, and have recently procured graphic novels.  Students can select any book they would like without judgment.
  • I set a timer.  There is something about uttering the phrase, “All right students, silent reading begins NOW” as I press the ON button on my timer that makes the students begin reading right away.  If a few students are still chatting, I stop my timer (which has a handy “beep” noise every time I press it), stare at them until they notice me, and say loudly “I am waiting to begin silent reading.  Silent reading will not begin until everyone is reading.”
  • I make funny faces at my students.  On the rare occasion that a student is not actively engaging in silent reading, I catch his/her eye and then I pretend that I am flipping through an imaginary book in front of me.  I mouth words like “wow,” or “hmm” (as I press my index finger into my cheek) as I continue to flip through my imaginary book.  I must look pretty darn silly doing this, because the student always giggles and then returns to reading his/her book.

One of my all-time happiest moments as a teacher is when a mother of one of my students wrote me a thank you card at the end of the year, telling me that her child once had a teacher who had turned him off to reading, and that I had brought the love of reading back to her son.  She thanked me for making her son the avid reader that he once was.

This student is a perfect example of silent reading having the potential to change our students’ perceptions of reading: many students feel as if reading is a tedious activity that is forced upon them; silent reading will convince many students that reading can be a self-directed activity that brings them joy and sparks their interests.

Silent reading also increases students’ vocabularies by exposing them to new words, and if students continue to read more because they enjoy their silent reading time, then their vocabularies will expand exponentially, making silent reading truly the gift that keeps on giving!

“The more you read, the more things you will know.  The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” –Dr. Seuss

Related websites

The only way to get your students to listen

“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
― Theodore Roosevelt

Icarus was just trying to do a great job…and look where it got him!

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When children are young and are asked the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” their answers tend towards the exciting, romanticized careers:

“I want to be an astronaut!”
“I want to be a fire fighter!”
“I want to be a ballerina!”
“I want to be a baseball player!”

As they become teens, they begin to think of the careers that sound the most prestigious and/or offer the highest salary:

“I want to be a doctor!”
“I want to be a lawyer!”

I don’t think a single child, growing up, has ever thought about what s/he would like his/her quality of life to be as an adult.  And certainly no child has looked to the future and hoped for an average life.

Still, I wonder: what is really wrong with being average?  Most people, by definition, will be average.  While career choice is important in supporting oneself, and later on, one’s family, shouldn’t we be focusing on teaching our youth that a balanced life is best, no matter what the career or salary?

We live in a society that is fueled by the need to do things BETTER: drive a better car, earn a better salary, purchase a better house…But in the end, something has got to give.  Sometimes it is spending enough time with one’s family, other times it is not having enough personal time to oneself for fun (a word that has become just as dirty in professional circles as another prevalent, four-letter word).  What we really should be teaching our students are priorities.

In Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David Burns, M.D. dedicates an entire chapter, “Dare to Be Average!” to mediocrity.  His book has sold more than four million copies, and professionals consistently rate it as the top self-help book for people suffering with depression.  Various media outlets report that depression is on the rise on college campuses, which leads to some very important questions: Would teaching our students that doing a good job and not a great one is sufficient or even better for them psychologically?  Do our seemingly harmless prompts of “I know you can do better!” on B papers have a negative effect on our students?

Tim Ferriss’s bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek lauds the teachings of the Pareto Principle, as Ferriss recommends focusing one’s attention on the 20% of the clients that contribute to 80% of a business’s income.  Can it follow, then, that by only exerting 20% of one’s work capacity, one will achieve 80% of the results one is looking for?  This sounds like the old adage “Work smarter, not harder,” not to mention my high school U.S. History teacher’s favorite saying, “Keep it simple, stupid!”  (His other favorite, “whatever floats your boat,” doesn’t work so well here.)

If the doomed youth Icarus had not felt the need to rise above and beyond (literally and metaphorically), would he have ended up at the bottom of the sea?  Obviously this is a rhetorical question, as the answer is, of course, no.  What’s scary is what actually happens when Icarus takes his fateful plunge.  The scene is depicted in Bruegel’s famous painting De Val Van Icarus (The Fall of Icarus), in which Icarus’s fall is a minute detail at the bottom right-hand corner of the painting, while life goes on as usual for the townsfolk who are the central characters of the piece.

The lesson learned?  If we slip up from time to time, it is okay.  If we are good at something and not great at something, that is okay too.  In the end…no one will notice.

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The western canon

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This generation of teenagers was born after the advent of the internet.  At home, my students have computers, XBOX 360s, iPod touches, and Kindles/Nooks/iPads to keep them occupied, not to mention the latest iPhone or Android model.

So why are we still teaching them the same books?

Most teachers would claim that it’s because the older books are better, the old “they don’t make them like they used to” that is supposed to be a fact, but inevitably falls short.  Granted, there are books on the canon that are important historically: To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, truly chronicles the inequalities pervasive in a not-too-distant American past.

Still, isn’t the point of literature to inspire?  to engage?  to create an escape from our everyday lives so that we can experience another world, new emotions, and new ideas?  If so, then the established canon does none of these things.

How can Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations (which I have both, begrudgingly, taught) inspire today’s youth, when the archaic language creates a barrier through which few can actually see?  How can Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath engage the students who must resentfully wade through the pages upon pages of description, seeking a dialogue but not finding it soon enough?  And who wants to escape to the world of Faulkner’s A Light in August, with superbly unpleasant events, characters, and ending?

Please do not think for a moment that someone like me, who loves to read, does not appreciate the aforementioned novels.  On the contrary, I will be the first to laud the authors’ writing styles, tremendously acute treatment of symbolism, and heck, even their content.

But not all students are like you or me.  Most students need the engagement that only comes from more modern novels that deal with more modern issues, and are written in a more modern way.

And if the whole purpose of teaching English is to pass on to our young people the skills necessary to succeed in college and beyond, then these skills should go beyond deciphering Shakespeare’s English in order to gain a merely rudimentary understanding of storyline.  These skills should be rooted in literature that students can directly relate to because the subject matter is current and interesting to them.  Then, we won’t have to throw candy at students for answering comprehension questions based on stale, outdated writing; students will learn because they truly, finally, are engaged, and teachers won’t have to work as hard to make that happen.

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Featured author: Jim Burke

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My credential program was taught by PhDs who had never stepped foot in a classroom.  They loved the idea of education, and had spent their graduate years studying how others should teach.  They condemned using textbooks for instruction, and assigned readings based on theories: instructional design theory, classroom management theory, etc.  They all used the same keywords: “scaffolding instruction,” “differentiating instruction,” and the all mighty “student engagement,” but never really taught me the nuts and bolts of implementing any of these nebulous ideas into the reality of my classroom.  These professors were nice people, meant well, and really thought they were helping me, but on the first day my student teaching, I had no practical advice on what to teach, how to teach, and how to manage a classroom.  Sound familiar?

That’s where Jim Burke comes in.  Burke, an English teacher at Burlingame High School in California, gives teachers the tools they need to be successful in the classroom, while explaining why to use each tool.  I own many of his books, and find them invaluable in my instruction.  Here’s a quick run-down of my favorite Jim Burke books:

The English Teacher’s Companion

Now in its third edition, this book contains the best overview of the English teaching profession.  Burke touches on every important subject, including summer lesson planning, new directions in teaching, issues in teaching, and how to teach a number of different subcategories of English instruction, including grammar, writing, and reading.

Tools for Thought

This is my favorite Jim Burke book, because it contains a plethora of very useful graphic organizers, an explanation of how and why to use them, and actual student samples.  My particular favorites are the annotations graphic organizer and the sensational, why-didn’t-I-think-of-this student bookmarks.

If I were stuck on a deserted island and needed to teach the class set of Lord of the Flies that miraculously survived the shipwreck…and was lucky enough to have a photocopy machine, this is the book I would take with me.  (Come to think of it, Lord of the Flies may not be the best book to read on the island.  Hmmm.)

Other favorites:

Reading Reminders and Writing Reminders are also quintessential Burke, providing more ideas than any one teacher would ever be able to incorporate in one year.  Still, that’s the fun of it–teachers have many options to pick and choose from.

Looking forward to…

What’s the Big Idea?, Burke’s latest book.  While I have not seen this book yet, the book’s premise seems very promising: Burke works within Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design backward design model in order to illustrate how to create teaching units that are focused on essential questions.  These questions are driven by the standards, and the units are driven by the outcomes first.  In What’s the Big Idea?, Burke includes sample units, led by essential questions, and then details how to create one’s own unit, using the same technique.

One more Jim Burke resource:

Jim Burke has created an amazing website, the English Companion Ning, where English teachers can go to get resources and support from other teachers.  I highly recommend that you take a peek at this site–you will be inspired by all of the high-quality ideas presented in the discussions.

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I scream, you scream, we all scream without caffeine

Barista at work

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You are driving to work, trying to keep your eyes open from the long night of grading that you put behind you, and attempting to not think about the long night of grading you have ahead of you, when suddenly, a disturbing thought hits you–it’s only Tuesday.

There is only one solution to this problem: caffeine.

If you love the taste of coffee, you can hit your closest Peet’s Coffee; if you don’t like the taste of coffee, but love the effect, you will most likely stumble upon at least three ubiquitous Starbucks on your way.  There, the handy-dandy, always happy baristas (except for this guy) can work their magic in order to concoct frosty masterpieces for you (light caramel frappuccino, anyone?).

Finally, you may opt for a soda instead: the LARGEST sodas are at your local gas station (I saw one today at the AMPM that was the size of my head.  Literally…I’m not a large person).  McDonalds  sells all of their sodas for $1 (even the large), and the largest large outside of the gas station can be found at Jack in the Box.

Happy slurping!

P.S.  For something to look forward to, read The New York Times article below.

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Bad, bad, bad

The Columbine High School massacre, one of man...

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I am so disturbed by a “catchy” tune that is constantly playing on the radio.  The song is “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People.

The chorus’s overwhelmingly disturbing lyrics, “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, you’d better run, better run, outrun my gun.  All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, you’d better run, better run, faster than my bullet, ” are set to an almost sweet-sounding pop melody that makes the singers sound as if they are in a trance, and is definitely targeted towards the teenage crowd.

I have noticed friends singing this song under their breaths, and because the music is catchy and sounds happy (how strange!), people don’t mind that the words have a truly psychotic meaning…if they even stop to think about what the words are.

As a teenager who was two months away from graduation when the Columbine High School massacre occurred, I am repulsed by the abhorrent message of this song.  The pang of fear that I felt when I heard about Columbine occurs every time this song comes on the radio.  And as a current teacher, I am terrified at the catastrophic message that our students are chanting without even realizing it.  (See the articles below for the negative and dangerous effect that these lyrics have already had.)

As teachers, it is our responsibility to open our students’ eyes to the barrage of information that our media is inculcating them with.  Now I need to figure out how to do so!  Back to the drawing board.

“All the other kids with the pumped up kicks…”

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