Monday, October 15, 2012

Evaluating Teachers

Here's an interesting article. 

OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR: Want to Ruin Teaching? Give Ratings

A government-run teacher evaluation bureaucracy would be a disaster for the teaching profession — and thus the future of public education — in our country.

I work in a private school where my Head of School has the power to hire and fire and my Head of Upper School has the responsibility to evaluate the effectiveness of individual teachers. I like this because the US Head knows me as a person and as a teacher. Every year he helps me to reflect on what unique traits I bring to my job and what areas I CAN improve. Do we want to be taught by robots who all act and respond the same way? Should different classrooms be different because of the unique personality of the teacher? Or, do we want to set minimum standards and hope that teachers reach higher on their own? (Seems to me that all of these questions can be applied to evaluation of student performance as well)
I wonder what you think about this article and what teacher evaluation looks like at your school. 

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Great Gatsby

After reading The Great Gatsby I have my students read an excerpt from Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. When teaching American literature in Tehran during the beginning of the Iranian revolution, Nafisi's students struggled with the concepts that they encountered in this classic work of American literature. I invite my students to see the book through the eyes of a foreigner and ask:
  • How can American literature help or hinder the perception other have of us? 

So I'm thinking of how I will introduce the assignment today and I came across this quote: "Like all other ideologues before them the Islamic revolutionaries seemed to believe that writers were the guardians of morality" (Nafisi 136). In literature there are no moral lessons. The writer certainly has ideas that he/she wishes to share and have the reader consider. But reading is a dialogue. An educated reader participates in this dialogue by bringing his/her previous experiences and ideas to the discussion. As a work of literature ages the discussion can change and interpretations can lead to directions that the writer never forecast. Likewise, if the text has nothing to offer later generations then the discussion ends and the literature is no longer valued.

As suggested by several end of the 20th century "Best Of" lists, Gatsby still has much to say to us, Americans. And elevating it so high in our own canon draws the attention of the outside world who is interested in "understanding" us. But understanding takes effort, especially in reserving our initial reactions and our previous stereotypes and judgements. How do you react to something foreign? With curiosity? With disdain? Would we like to think that we are like Nick: "inclined to reserve all judgements" (Fitzgerald 5)? But also like Nick, we do not see how difficult this lofty ideal really is to attain. So, that makes us a bit like Gatsby too.

  • What can the character of Gatsby tell me about myself?
  • What can this novel tell me about my country? in the '20's? today?
  • What can this novel tell foreigners about my country?
  • How will I respond to World literature that I read next year? 
American Ideals Considered:
  • perseverance
  • hard work
  • self improvement
  • reason vs. passion
  • challenging traditions
  • compassion
  • responsibility to self and community
  • responsibility to the past
These are ideas presented in our literature throughout the year.
  • What do they mean to you? 
  • How are they presented in The Great Gatsby?
  • Are there any ideals that you would add to the list?

Monday, April 23, 2012

My kid's school rocks!

Front page news today - Gwyneth pictured blogging in the Free-Lance Star :) I'm still working on ways to make blogging more meaningful so that my students don't say "I have a blog, but not by choice." How can I help them use blogging as a way to explore their ideas and share them? The enthusiasm bubbling in the Lower School today reminds me to continue developing my curriculum so that my students can see their blogs as one way to show their writing and thinking skills as part of their positive web image.
My students: American Literature and British Literature.
My daughter's blog.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sonnets Aren't So Scary

My sophomores in British Literature class are writing sonnets, and when I mentioned this at the family dinner table the other night, my husband's reaction was not surprising. He hated sonnets and especially that iambic pentameter! We've talked before about his experiences in high school English class and from those conversations I've developed my own primer of what not to do to my students as their English teacher. But, they just HAVE to write sonnets, and I do my best to make the experience as non-traumatic as possible.

First, we have studied poetry throughout the year and they have developed skills, and hopefully, confidence in previous writing assignments, including a character sketch in rhyming couplets and accentual meter ala Geoffrey Chaucer and a poem in the style of the Anglo Saxon poet including caesuras and alliterative verse. Now, the ultimate challenge - the sonnet :)

I introduce the concept in its historical context as a popular form of writing during the English Renaissance. Poets would write sonnets to prove their worth as a writer. It's considered a puzzle to the writer and it's a puzzle to the reader - who doesn't like puzzles?! We also talk about other forms of art that we have made and how satisfying it can be to create something beautiful. I show them a double wedding knot quilt that I spent a year making and we compare the pattern to the pattern of the sonnet.

I guess what I try to emphasize is that if you develop and set the right attitude sonnets, like anything else, can be tackled and conquered. Push yourself, be creative, and you may discover something about yourself - that you didn't know before - You CAN do it! That's what real education should be about.

So, those are my intentions, how about the results? All of my students scored A's and B's on the sonnet quiz (higher grades than on previous assessments). And now, they are writing some pretty strong sonnets of their own. Here's one that not only fits my Shakespearean sonnet assignment but also was entered in a 100 word contest about technology:

It has always been deep in our nature to want

to break the chains in which we were bound by birth.

Each law of physics or nature is like a taunt,

or an obstacle as old as mother Earth.

But no walls ever built will always last,

for we were all born to break them down,

doing what we have done throughout our past;

reinventing ourselves and breaking new ground.

Sure, technology is not always right,

but it’s few failures are easy to forgive.

And anyone who, against it, puts up a fight,

forgets that technology allows them to live.

I hope he wins the contest :)

I've also asked my students to respond to this post with their perspective about studying sonnets to help me improve for next year. I'm watching them write right now. Some are counting syllables on their fingers, some sharing lines with a neighbor and smiling, others thinking hard - looking up at the ceiling, closing their eyes and bending their head, then scribbling another attempt. All working, trying, and experimenting with words. Though challenging, I hope that they remember this one day as a challenge they faced, not a trauma they survived.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

This brings a little tear to my eye

Here is how students use and benefit from laptops in the classroom.
First week of school. Second year teaching this group of students. Third year they have used laptops in the classroom.
One of my students knew that she would be absent and knew that the day's class period was time for working on a paper with a partner. So, she made arrangements. First, she talked with her partner to coordinate getting the work done. Then, she emailed me to let me know that she would be absent and that she had communicated with her partner.
During 8th period that day, all students were working on separate Google Docs to write scripts. My absent student was also working on the Google Doc with her partner and using the chat function to clarify directions and plan together.
Here is a screen shot that I took from my computer. I could watch them talking to each other and interject my own pointers along the way.
Why was this so seamless? The students were familiar with the applications used. They had experience using Google Docs and understood how to use it for their own purposes. These were also highly independent students. They did not wait for me to remind them how to use this online tool to their advantage, but instead took charge of the learning situation for themselves.
It brings a little tear to my eye when I see that ultimately my students don't need me. They can function and excel in this brave new 21st Century world just fine on their own!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Senior Exhibits

One of my favorite aspects of my job as a teacher at Fredericksburg Academy is the opportunity to work with students as their Senior Exhibit mentor. Students begin a year long study in an area of their choosing the spring of their junior year then complete a learning activity, application, and formal presentation by the spring of their senior year. I have worked with some great students in the past on their individual projects, including learning to become a certified Red Cross instructor, working with the elderly, and setting up a new program at our school to benefit students in the future. This year two juniors have asked me to work with them and I am very excited about their initial ideas. You can follow their blogs about learning Russian culture and physiology. I can't guarantee that they will still be with those topics come next spring, but they are both off to a great start!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Book Versus Scroll

Over the years my English department has tried to incorporate tech in our classrooms, especially when it makes learning better and more economical for our students. This is all made easier as I teach in a one-to-one laptop school. I have used a program called Vital Source, but I have found that the texts are not always accurate or as complete as their printed counterparts; for example no line numbers on epic poem texts. I have also used some e-texts with my classes but haven't always gotten the best feedback from students when I use these resources. We can't annotate them as we can a book. They are not as easily referenced during class discussions, although when the Ctrl F search feature works finding the same place to discuss is quick and easy. Of course, managing distractions is always an issue when anyone, not just students, are working online. Learning to self discipline in this area is a life skill that I encourage my students to practice. Ignoring Facebook, chat pop ups, constant checking of email, and more are all real distractions which I find myself falling into often, so I certainly sympathize with my students struggles in this area as well. For example, I set aside some time to grade lovely satires written by my sophomores and here I am writing a blog post (for the first time in three months!). An advantage to the e-text, besides the free price, is also the ease of access-no book to forget at school.

This morning I found some recent research that describes my biggest struggle with using online texts. As someone who has always studied books, I find it difficult to find my place in online texts. Maybe I need to use resources like Diigo and its annotation feature more often. I have also thought that this is because I am a strongly visual learner and "see" where on the page I am looking for in order to locate a relevant quote or section when analyzing a text. But this research suggests that another factor is memory processing.
So my questions are:
  • Do students of this new generation have different memory functioning than I do? Am I just getting old and losing it!
  • Is the digital world that they are growing up in changing how their brains develop (I know that there is research on this out there)?
  • Should I use online texts in order to facilitate this development, continue using a combination of print and online sources, or go back to the "good old days" of tattered, well read paperbacks?
I hope that teachers who have used scrolling texts share what they do in order to use this resource effectively as a learning tool. And I hope that students also share their perspectives on these questions as well.

One more thought, more than anything I have found that variety is not only the spice of life but also the best way to teach. Whether for "keeping it fresh" and interesting or to reach students with multiple learning styles in the same 45 minutes. So I guess I'm leaning toward sticking to the combination (I have turned in my book list for next year), but what about the year after that (do teachers plan two years in advance?!) I'm also always open to change, which helps adapting to this whole new world of teaching a bit easier.