I had to substitute in two roles today: as sophomore team lead in our professional learning community meeting and as a senior English teacher for a colleague at district training. As the sophomore team lead, I was reminded just how much our team is like a herd of cats–constantly changing our minds and having to be redirected. I felt like I was standing by with a squirt bottle in hand.
Imagine my surprise when the seniors I watched as a one-period substitute teacher behaved better than the adults…but at least I felt the outcome of our team meeting forced a much-needed dialogue about how skewed our data had become because of student nonparticipation. So we opted to redo the assessment altogether in the hopes of gaining a clearer understanding of just what help our students really need when writing the counterargument portion of an argumentative essay. We bantered back and forth about what to do, how to do it, and when, but we did end up with the outline of a third assessment tool that hopefully is more targeted than the prior two.
And even though I really, really, really got no break other than lunch today, I felt it was a productive day in which we actually took into account what our data told us. We stopped and refused to make the assumption that 40% of our students just didn’t care. We had to make the assumption that the 40 % were struggling with the concept of counterargument to the point of not doing the work. We wanted to collect data from them regardless. So backing up, taking a look at our assessment strategies, and re-doing it all just made sense. Now let’s hope that the common assessment we give on Friday this week yields the information we really need to move forward.
“Sanctify Yourself” by Simple Minds
Mondays are like reboot days. Mondays after a long break, the reboot is a little slower than usual. I knew I’d have to jump right in to hook the tired kids into the week and set us on the long path with no break between now and Memorial Day.
My sophomores started the introduction to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink on the Friday before Spring Break, while my seniors finished up reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. So I had a fresh starting point for the day today.
For my sophomores: we revisited close reading strategies and I modeled using them during a read/think aloud for the remainder of Gladwell’s introduction. I also modeled how to use the reading strategies to annotate the text as well. I focused on the core concepts of breaking the reading into smaller chunks, identifying and defining problematic vocabulary in each chunk, rereading each chunk with the vocabulary, identifying very important parts from the reading, visualizing by looking up key items (like the kouros statue highlighted by Gladwell in the intro), etc.
My seniors and I jumped into some ancillary materials for Heart of Darkness so we could revisit the text using geopolitical and socio-economic critical lenses. But before we delved into the reading packets, we needed to review the book. So I pulled up a Sparknotes video on the novel that resembled John Greene’s Crash Course series. Before I hit play on the short 10-minute video, I asked the students to make a list of all the words from the novel they would expect to hear in the video. They listed words like Marlowe, Kurtz, Africa, Congo, the Company, the Director, the Nellie, Heart, Darkness, Savage, Ivory, etc. After we had compiled a rather large master list, I instructed the kids to make a bingo card on a piece of paper. The bingo card had 25 squares. Then they had to prioritize and select the 25 words from their list that they most expected to hear in the video. This bingo card ensured the kids paid close attention to the video. While no one blacked out their card, they did have a number of questions at the end of the video–and they definitely noticed that a few words they expected to hear were omitted entirely taking umbrage with the writers of the video’s script. So our review hinged on how they would describe the novel in short order.
While it may have felt manic to them, we kept busy and engaged this first Monday back.
“Manic Monday” by The Bangles
The only thing standing between my students and spring break is me and Malcolm Gladwell. My students marched to the library and checked out Gladwell’s book, Blink. We proceeded to pre-read for a few minutes–what does the book look like it’s about, are there pictures, charts, graphs, etc.
Then I read five pages to them–a read aloud, think aloud, practice aloud of fundamental reading strategies. Yes, we read only five pages–and it took most of the period to do so because we looked up vocabulary together. We stopped after short chunks of reading to check for understanding and to look at pictures of Greek kouros statues and the old Getty Museum along Pacific Coast Highway. I wanted students to be able to visualize what Gladwell had so painstakingly described in the introduction to his book. An I wanted the kids to know that we would continue to practice solid fundamentals of reading.
While I opted to not give reading homework over spring break, I wanted to give the students a taste of Gladwell’s anecdotal techniques before we parted ways for a week–and that upon our return we will be working super hard to practice our reading and annotating skills.
My seniors were not so lucky as to avoid homework over the break as they are on a quick collision course with an AP exam. So they were assigned three book review reports over books they had read in prior years in school that could be used on the AP Exam. We created an extensive list of their readings, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, and All Quiet on the Western Front. The reports were short and meant to give the students a quick review of the texts more than anything else.
But thankfully, we are all going to get a week of well-deserved rest and relaxation.
“Rock Me Amadeus” by Falco
Sometimes it takes epic failure to learn something. Today my sophomores learned a lesson in humility–after a day and a half of “preparing” for their Julius Caesar arguments, they crashed and burned and discovered that just doing the bare minimum doesn’t convince anyone of anything other than that they just didn’t know what they were talking about.
While they did engage with the material yesterday, they just didn’t click on all cylinders–much like I was beginning to fear. They were too satisfied with the superficial and didn’t dig deeply into the characters. It only took a few minutes for each group to see that they didn’t have enough information collected to even make an argument for their character, much less defend their character from attack by the other groups. Out of 12 groups throughout the day, I’d say that only three really demonstrated with proficiency how to truly defend their character.
So at the end of the exercise, I asked them about what they would do to change their preparation for the exercise. I asked them what about the exercise they found easiest and hardest. It was very telling that many of the students had a hard time because they didn’t like the character they were randomly assigned–that they didn’t understand how to defend someone they thought was wrong. This year’s group responded so differently from last year’s group that bought into their character’s righteousness despite evidence showing otherwise.
Our post-exercise debrief led to a lot for me to consider in the restructuring of this assignment for next year. So even though all the students failed at adequately defending their character, we all learned a lot about what got in the way of their success through the debrief. So sometimes losing is winning, as it’s hard to know success unless we’ve tasted failure.
“Lonesome Loser” by Little River Band
My sophomores are continuing with their practice of argument skills, but are finishing up their final assignment with Julius Caesar. This final assignment is to create an argument that the character they are randomly assigned is the most morally correct character of Shakespeare’s play.
Their goal is to hone their argument skills by defending a character that they may not find righteous in reality, but create a case that the character is indeed righteous. My students dove into the text, found scenes featuring their characters, selected pieces of evidence, and remained on task all period. The final product will tell me just how much their hard work reflects their understanding–as they have worked hard. But from what I have been seeing so far in class today, I’m not convinced they are thinking very deeply about their characters. I gave each group (there are four groups representing these four characters: Brutus, Cassius, Antony, and Caesar) some tips about where to look and for what to look. I can only hope that the tips helped…and that their arguments are truly reflective of their learning.
“Mirrors” by Justin Timberlake
Therefore, good Brutus, be prepared to hear.
And since you know you cannot see yourself
So well as by reflection, I, your glass,
Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of.
And be not jealous on me, gentle Brutus…
from The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (I.ii.68-73)
My seniors are tackling Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness this week as we slide into spring break. One of the introductory pieces that we’ve used in close reading with sections of the text is the concept of impressionistic writing. So we close read a passage from part 1 and compared it to the impressionistic artwork of Claude Monet.
from Part 1: Heart of Darkness
…Between us there was, as I have already said somewhere, the bond of the sea. Besides holding our hearts together through long periods of separation, it had the effect of making us tolerant of each other’s yarns—and even convictions. The Lawyer—the best of old fellows—had, because of his many years and many virtues, the only cushion on deck, and was lying on the only rug. The Accountant had brought out already a box of dominoes, and was toying architecturally with the bones. Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol. The director, satisfied the anchor had good hold, made his way aft and sat down amongst us. We exchanged a few words lazily. Afterwards there was silence on board the yacht. For some reason or other we did not begin that game of dominoes. We felt meditative, and fit for nothing but placid staring. The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marsh was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun…
We broke the reading down by form and function: lit devices/structure and meaning.
“By the Rivers Dark” by Leonard Cohen
I spoke at the school board meeting this evening. After a busy day at work with my students, then a committee meeting, picketing with parents, and then being greeted by the fire marshal called by our school board to divide all of our protesting teachers into three different rooms at the board of education meeting, it all made for a long day.
Our school district keeps finding ways to peeve parents and teachers. While I did speak for my 3 minutes during open communications, my message of lost parity and dignity fell on a board that sat stone-faced if they even bothered to look up. In all, five parents spoke and four teachers. The five parents all delivered strong messages to the board about keeping teachers in the classrooms rather than pulled out for 20 days a year for professional development, about respecting the voices of all stakeholder groups, about the lack of dignity they have shown the parent and teacher groups over the past few months. I can’t thank these parents enough. I was lucky enough to speak with a number of them one on one. They have very real concerns about the district and their children’s education–and they do not think the problem is their children’s teachers.
While it was a long day, it was empowering to be surrounded by so many eloquent community members and teachers all advocating for our children, our classrooms, and our profession. It was a long day to start a week that will feel long as we roll toward spring break, but it’s all worth it to me as the anger and frustration that has boiled over and fogged things up the past few months is beginning to clear. I’ve long understood the district’s gameplan, but now I have a much clearer big picture of where my colleagues and community are at and it’s reaffirming.
“From Despair to Where” by Manic Street Preachers
Well, after skimming through two sets of arguments, it is obvious my students need some help with writing a counterclaim, refuting that counterclaim, and rebutting it. So I chose to write two claims on the board that I knew would capture their attention. My sophomores faced the two claims divided into pairs to research and prove the claims. The catch–they were claims with which the vast majority of the students would disagree. Today’s exercise was an exercise in examining both sides of an argument thoroughly. After yesterday’s failure at the bargaining table, it’s an exercise from which we can all benefit. Knowing and being able to prove multiple perspectives on an issue is a difficult skill set to develop, but it is deeply important for getting along with others in the world around us.
After they worked to prove the claim, they then had to take time to disprove the claim. After which, we spent time examining which argument was easier to prove and which was a stronger argument based on their findings. Then the students had to write the counterargument portion of the essay. I provided a teacher model for them (based on a totally different claim), and light bulbs started going off–now they seemed to understand what a counterargument looks like and began attempting it. Their counters served as a ticket out of class for the day–and gave me even more insight in helping them practice applying their newfound skill.
“Times Like These” by The Foo Fighters
Today our bargaining team met with the state mediator for 15 whole minutes. That’s all it took for the district to shut us out again. Today’s meeting, which took six teachers out of the classroom and 14 administrators out of their offices, was nothing more than an exercise in futility. That’s 6 x $140 for sub coverage. That’s 6 x the time each of us took in preparing lessons. That’s 6 x the time our students had away from their teachers. All so the district could check a box on their way to attempting to impose what they want, all on their way to act outside the law rather than work with their employees. We are now no longer at an impasse. The district is moving toward a process called fact-finding, an arduous process, all to grab a future year’s calendar–and nothing to do with securing highly qualified teachers in every classroom, lowering class size, ensuring a solid curriculum and texts for every child, or reaching out to the numerous stakeholder groups within our district. It’s too bad that our school board and district head-shed have become so myopic–and forcing teachers into a corner over something so inconsequential for our kids. The school board has misplayed this calendar politically so badly that teachers refuse to ratify a calendar out of fear that the things listed above (class size, etc.) will not be addressed without this one bargaining chip. We certainly live in extraordinary times.
Luckily my students were writing on a prompt today that they would all want to write about–school uniforms. I can’t wait to read through their papers in the morning and see if any took the side of wanting them. Reading student essays will be the reward from a day lacking in shared mission from my employer.
“Wasting Time” by Collective Soul
Another day of being well-prepared walking in on the morning made my busy half day run smoothly. The second half of my day was an event though. The good kind. The family kind. I took my kid brother to see his rock n roll hero in concert for his birthday present. So today felt good because I did right by my kids at school, my colleagues, and my family.
My day starting in collaboration time…
Then I spent time sitting in meetings advocating for a colleague…
Then I spent time with some of my sophomores and tested the day’s lesson before the sub arrived.
Then I sat in another meeting advocating for another colleague…
Then I spent time with my seniors finishing up their gothic novels.
Then my sub arrived.
I may have only been at school for a half-day, but I fit a whole day’s worth of work into those few hours. And luckily my sub for tomorrow was my sub this afternoon, so we were able to go over all the plans before I left.
Then I was off like a lightning bolt to pick up my brother and drive to the concert venue to see Noel Gallagher. We arrived right as he did. Watching my kid brother geek out at seeing his rock hero up close made all the extra work worth it. I also paid close attention to the themes of Gallagher’s set through the evening. I went to hear great music and left with a lesson idea about cohesion and theme. The typical teacher in me is always looking for a new way to approach teaching a lesson. And Mr. Gallagher did not disappoint.
“AKA…What a Life!” by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds