Monday, May 23, 2005

Reflecting on the Blog

I started my education blog around the same time as I had my students begin a blog for the classroom--Pre-College. Now that the year is starting to come to a close, 14 days for the Pre-College students, I am in search of an answer for the question, "How do I do it better?"

Here are my reflections and questions on classroom blogging:

The Blogging Goal--the classroom blog is a place where students react to the literature we read in class. The blog gives them a place to wrestle with theme, plot, characters, and self-to-text connections. The blog allows them to interact with each other outside the typical classroom setting, while giving every student the opportunity to be heard (read). How do I introduce blogging to incoming students next year in a way that decreases the attitude that this assignment is just like any other assingment?

Blogging Success--I've noticed that in the semester I've had students blogging, some of the quietest students in class often have tremendous contributions through the blogging medium. The students who have regularly attended to this assignment have subsequently written, at the very least, one paragraph per week. The students have been provided with the opportunity to interact with literature and each other outside of the classroom setting. With multiple classes, is it best to have one blog site for all classes, or separate blog sites? I would have to encourage students to look beyond their class blog if we had separate sites, adding to the blogging experience.

Blogging Failures--students too often just punched something out at the last minute or just to get it done. Posts were a summary of pages read and not an interaction. Students just didn't do the blog. Comments on other posts were often too brief or lacking in content. Grammatical mistakes were abundant. Should blogging in the classroom be held to the same standards as essay writing, or should we give into the text-message culture?(I might not be ready for that)
How do I introduce blogging, and encourage blogging, in a way that prompts students to want to post? Students posted, did their comment, and forgot about it until the next week. How do I encourage students to go beyond just the assignment and use blogging as forum for discussion?

Other Questions:
1. Should the teacher post on the classroom blog?
2. Should the teacher interact, through comments, on the classroom blog?
3. Should posts be graded, if so, what should the criteria be?

Friday, May 20, 2005

Testing the Testing Waters

Today our students enjoyed the wonderful Pacific Northwest weather while we teachers attended meetings. Now, I am not a huge fan of meetings--I have trouble paying attention, sitting still, and keeping my quips to myself. This knowledge about myself makes me slightly more understanding when my students get antsy. But today's meetings actually had value, at least for me.
Relatively new to the profession, my professional goals include improving not only what I do in my classroom but also what we do as a school community. We broke off into teams, by grade and subject, to form a charter, an overarching objective for our grade level. As Washington state's focus in on the WASL, our schools main focus was the 9th and 10th grade year. I teach 12th grade English and 9th grade Reading. I wasn't sure what I could add to the 9th grade English teachers discussion which was where I was placed.
It occurred to me that what we lack is consistency. From one classroom to another, from one year to the next, there doesn't seem to be any consistency in expectations. So, against my natural inclination, I offered the idea of entrance and exit exams for 9th grade English. The test, and I cringe to say it because I am not a fan of high stakes testing, would be a way to gauge what they know at the start, relative to what we want them to know at the end, and then test them again at the end of the year to see if they had learned what we expected. Both tests would be on the same level so that we could determine actual growth. The end of the year, or exit test, would not necessarily hold them back, but be used as a tool for the 10th grade teachers. I think it is necessary to develop something along this line in order to begin a consistentcy among our expectations as a department and as a school.
Now, we must begin the process of developing benchmarks, both for reading and writing. Here's where I'll admit a major weakness. I am not good at details or finishing grand ideas. In fact, I don't know how to write a solid test of that nature, nor do I fully understand exactly what we want every 9th grader to know how to do.
I want this to be something that our particular site is in charge of, our district likes to be involved heavily with each site, so that the benchmarks and approach would fit our school's needs and personality. We shall see who is skilled with such curriculum development. For those who read this, if you are especially skilled, please, offer insight.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Carnival of Education

While I haven't had much to say lately, or just too tentative to say it, go where the action is. Check out this week's Carnival of Education. Happy Blog Reading!

Monday, May 16, 2005

Becoming Better

Max De Pree, author of Leading without Power: Finding hope in serving community, writes, "If we're to take on new projects, new challenges, we must be prepared to abandon the obsolete"(15). For educators, every year is a new challenge. Each class is a new challenge. This continual ebb and flow creates for us a task that at times creates plenty of stress. But if we are to become better instructors, we owe our profession the courtesy of evaluating what we do in the classroom. At this point, allow me a moment of political cynicism--if education as a public institution is going to flourish in the eyes of our current administration, perhaps it would do them well to open their minds to evaluating their methods of institution.

My question is, what part of education has become obsolete? What teaching methods should we throw away? And what makes a method obsolete? If students do not take to a style or method, is it obsolete?

The latest education fad holds students accountable to standards. Which implies that prior to NCLB and Ken O'Connor, teachers did not hold students accountable to standards. Some go as far as to say that we should give students as many tries as they need to meet those standards and that we shouldn't punish them with grades. Has grading become obsolete?

Education has become obsessed with standards. Reading standards. Writing standards. Math standards. Science standards. But what about those other standards, the ones that we hold ourselves to? Are they obsolete in education? If the standard isn't measurable on a multiple choice test, is it obsolete?

So, I am wondering about the following units I taught this year and whether they are obsolete:

1. Personal Statements for college essays--if they don't go to college, what's the point.
2. Vocabulary--this one really tanked. Apparently students find it boring, even in a cheesy power-point.
3. Beowulf--modern translation. Still, students didn't see the point of this heroic epic. Too busy watching Braveheart, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings.
4. Canterbury Tales--story contests take a back seat to singing contests.
5. The Tempest--difficult language to understand, no real good movie version, fairly happy ending.
6. Othello--the movies were better. (This Shakespeare stuff, I really am wondering if it is obsolete)
7. Expository writing--do students really need to think critically about the world around them when Jon Stewart, SNL, and Bill O'Reilly do it for them?
8. Literature Circles--unless they plan on joining Oprah's book of the month clubs at local Starbucks, perhaps this is obsolete as well.

What about you? Anything obsolete to add? Sorry, I tried to be serious about this one, but the end of the year blues got to me.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Born Readers

After teaching a mini-lesson to one of my Reading classes on how to analyze a character, I was again struck with the question of, can everyone learn how to read well? I recognize that not everyone loves to read, in fact, it was not until my Junior year of high school that I actually read a full book longer than Clifford Goes to Hollywood. But during that summer between my Sophomore and Junior year, I was assigned to read both Of Mice and Men and The Great Gatsby. I struggled with Of Mice and Men, but was enthralled by The Great Gatsby. Now, I read voraciously, but still struggle at times to understand--and I am an English teacher.

But back to class. As my reading groups rotated through the period, from the Reading Zone to the Computer Zone and on to me for Direct Instruction, I became aware of just how many of my students didn't get it. Using the story of Arachne and her challenge to the goddes Athena, I instructed them on analyzing a character. Of course, these students are here to improve their reading levels, but even inside of the class, there were distinct pockets of students who picked it up and others that just stared at the page, presumably wondering what in Athena's name we were reading.

Cris Tovani's book I Read it, but I don't Get it: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers has been a helpful book in understanding the scope of today's reading problem. I think, ultimately it comes down to the purpose for which we read. Critical thinking skills are necessary to understanding literature; we must be able to ask those questions of motive and intent; we need to recognize what is said and not said; we need to recognize themes. But, does a student need to know how to do all of those things in relation to a novel? Yes, as a life skill I think we want students to question motives, infer meaning, and understand the general themes of life. If they don't, the world will take full advantage of them. But is this life going to take advantage of them if they cannot recognize the themes in Of Mice and Men? Do all of our student really need those skills in life? Or is simple functional reading what we should focus on?