Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"theory always comes after practice"

So says Brother Jack to Invisible Man's narrator (359). While the context is very different from the context in which I'm writing today, it does seem an appropriate idea to share. Every time I think something will work in my classroom, I don't know for sure until I've practiced it. Sometimes my theories work. Often, they don't. Of course, that makes the working theories so much the sweeter. And then again, the same idea may not work with a different group of students. I'm seeing that firsthand in my use of a ning in my classes: with one class, it created a sense of community and communication. In a different class, it feels like a dusty corner of the room that people only visit under compulsion. Much less organic, and much less productive.

You never know until you try.

Monday, May 24, 2010


One of the best things I heard last week was the following, in the context of a faculty workshop on mentoring and multiplicity: "I'm here to help you have a better relationship with (subject]."

That statement put into clearer terms what I think teaching English is about: it's about helping our students have better relationships with our subject matter, even if that doesn't translate to their perfecting the art of the subject we teach. Not every student is going to love Shakespeare or Mahfouz, but every student can learn to see what there is of value in exploring those texts—especially those texts which don't reflect the world in which the students live. Not every student will become a Zadie Smith, but every student can learn to write and express him/herself authentically. And my job is to make students feel equipped to encounter any text (any experience?) and write about it. Cool.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Summer to-do list

1. Learn how to use Google Wave and think about whether to use it in the classroom.
2. Set up a FirstClass social media site for one of my classes.
3. Lots of reading. (In addition to those two texts, there are about a hundred works of fiction on my to-read-for-fun shelf. And about 15 New Yorkers to catch up on.)
4. Keep blogging.
5. Work on my website, which is currently just a domain name. (Here's why.)
6. More gardening, more yoga, more sleep, more food.

Now reverse the order of all those.

And keep adding stuff on. Like presenting at CIT in DC and in San Francisco.

And attending a writing workshop in Berkeley in August.

And...and... the list goes on and on.

Image credit.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Examining Writing, pt. 2

I left off here.

Assume, for the moment, that we're not going to stop teaching classes that focus on a region, a type of literature, or a theme. How do we revolutionize our teaching of writing without completely reinventing the wheel?

What are some practices that might help students become better writers and better thinkers? How can we get good essays without having to grade every draft and revision? How can we get students to see their own work critically?

Practices I've used with some success include regular journaling and freewriting a là Bard College. But that has usually been in the context of my Advanced Composition class, which I use as a laboratory for teaching writing; in the context of most other classes, so much time devoted to writing and sharing our writing would be impossible, since we'd also have to look at the text we're reading. I've also spent time using student work to discuss various aspects of analytical essay—the formal stuff like opening and closing paragraphs, integrating textual support, and making clean transitions between ideas. And I'm a huge fan of getting students to write about the text to each other in informal spaces.

But is it possible to assign papers that are less formal, yet that still approach the text and manipulate it in some way? In other words, if it's a given that students must learn how to write something resembling an analytical essay (and that's a big "if"), is it possible to go about it sneakily, by having them write something else, something they enjoy writing more? (Of course, there's another question that arises here: is school supposed to be about enjoyment?)

Should the writing reflect the reading? Or should it intersect with the world in a broader sense? I'm thinking right now of an essay I read in Urban's literary magazine, which is clearly influenced by a piece of literature, but isn't an analytical essay in the way that we teach it. But it is a great essay, and a fine piece of writing.

I know this post is long on questions and short on answers. But the reason I'm blogging isn't necessarily about stating all my beliefs and coming up with a list of the best possible practices for teaching English. I'm blogging to figure out what I think the big questions are and to reflect on what works and what doesn't work, and what I still need to figure out for myself as I continue teaching.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Examining Writing

So, Friday I had a good class. A really good class. One of those classes after which I remember why I'm a teacher, the kind of class that makes me thank my students for their awesomeness. On Friday, I spent 70 minutes talking about Plato's Apology with 13 sophomores. I had a student (a senior, who is "TAing" with me this term) come up with a few questions. He led the discussion, while I sat in as a participant, instead of the person at the front of the room. I mostly listened. A student who doesn't often speak up or get engaged in the conversation came up to me and said, "This is what English class is supposed to be. It's supposed to be talking about the books and relating them to our lives."

Indeed. "The unexamined life is not worth living," after all, and an English class is a good place for such examinations. The mirror, the prism of the text gives us a new way of seeing. A friend of mine likes to joke that English classes are really just group therapy. On Friday, that class did some deep examining, and engaged in some deep therapy. What I love about teaching is the moments like Friday's class—my students read and engage fully with a text that I love, a text that many have loved, and that text, even for just one moment, changes their lives. The thrill for me is being present at that moment of change.

But there's a catch: those moments are fleeting, even with the best combination of students and in the best of classes. The day-to-day work of teaching often beats back those bright moments into the shadows. The reading: not a problem. I like books. The planning: time-consuming, but I'm a planning kind of girl. When I'm not plotting and scheming about what and how to teach, I'm plotting and scheming about my garden, or my house, or what to cook all week. Even the faculty and committee meetings, when they're productive, aren't so bad.

No, I'm talking about the grading. Here's the question that drives most of my questioning and thinking about teaching as a career (examining, if you will): How can I make this job sustainable? How can I have time to live a fulfilled, examined life while still getting papers back to students in the amount of time that my department says is reasonable? There's no easy answer to these questions. In this post, I tried to get at some possible options for making the grading better while at the same time providing the kind of feedback that my students want and need. I've also been reading a bit about one possible way to make my giving of comments more efficient. Instead of dwelling on grading techniques right now, I'd like to spend more time looking at the very nature of the assignments we give.

I'm hardly the first person to say that the way we teach writing needs to be rethought. In fact, high school English as a discipline is a hodgepodge: we teach writing, we teach grammar, we teach critical thinking, we practice multicultural exploration through texts, and so much more. And we're therapists. But what's the purpose of all the stuff we teach? For me, it can't just be about getting my students into good colleges so that they can live productive, possibly happy (but perhaps unexamined) lives. It has to be bigger than that. Even explaining comma splices must be in service of a greater meaning and purpose. Allow me to quote myself:
I want them to show themselves to be insightful readers and speakers, and writers who write authentically, from the heart.
How do we get there from comments like this?
i personally think that it is useless to talk about grammar. when we are taking about themes/ideas that have to do with us, or things that we can choose to do/learn about that is when it becomes interesting for me.
(student response to my "How Do You Know? survey)
I'll posit some thoughts in my next post. Right now, it's time to examine my garden.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Looking Back

Recently, at a meeting of second-year teachers at my school, we had a conversation about collaboration. Collaboration among colleagues is a big, deliberate deal at Urban, so we were asked to think about what makes for successful (and not-so-successful) collaborations. It was easy to make a list of frustrations with collaborative pairings that hadn’t worked out well—like a term in which I was the only person teaching a core course, a course that was new to me. I felt totally unmoored and unstable, and my teaching showed a lack of deliberation in planning and design. What that experience showed me was the value I find in having a functional team or at least a collaborative partner working on a course.

When we listed what made for successful collaboration, I had an easier time. What most often helps me is a flesh-and-blood check-in: how do you get them to look at the text’s more complex parts, when they’re struggling so much with keeping the characters straight? What do you think might be a better way to introduce this book? Should we tweak this prompt? How did yesterday's plan work?

Of course, even if we're collaborating closely, we don't have to teach in lockstep. I might want to experiment with something that my collaborator isn’t interested in, or I might want to add or subtract a text. But it’s great to share the results of those shifts and experiments with colleagues, and to see how their experience of the class can inform my own.

And not every collaborative meeting has to be in person. Sending emails with lesson plans back and forth can be quite fruitful, not to mention efficient. But I find that there’s often something else that comes up in conversation that might not occur to me as I’m hastily composing an email message. But the time for meeting face-to-face isn't always there, and the people aren't always there when the time's there. (Hence this blog and the long list of blogs I read.)

There's a lot to be said for the process of reflecting on one's teaching in a journal. But I've had the most insights when I've shared my successes and failures with others.

How do you collaborate? What tools do you use to share your work with your colleagues, whether in the same building or across the world?

Saturday, May 8, 2010


I made this video last summer; I'm archiving it here to remind myself of what's important.

Friday, May 7, 2010

How do you know?

It's the last six weeks of school. The runaway train is slowing down, and I'm slowing down even faster. I'm ready to step back from the hectic pace of the year and begin spending more time reflecting and planning, less time grading and prepping. But first I have to get through these six weeks.

All is not lost, however: I have a blog. And here, I can think about all of those things which I cannot yet indulge in too fully. I hope this is the beginning of my re-emergence as a blogger, and as a writer.

Here's what's on my mind today: As a part of the professional development required in my second year as a teacher at Urban, I've been asked to ask my students how they know how they're doing in my class. The answer to this question at almost any other school would be simple: this is your grade. But at Urban it's more complex. We can't just show a grade; in fact, we almost never tell students what their grades are (sorry about the PDF!). We write long narratives, with equally long rubrics. But no grades.

What does that mean for a subject like English, then? In practice, it often means that students are unsure of how they're doing. Even with detailed narratives, one-on-one meetings, and my frequent availability, they still feel like they don't have a sense of where their strengths and weaknesses are. The lack of clarity is more frustrating for freshmen and sophomores, who are still learning to see themselves. I find that my juniors and seniors seem to have a fairly strong idea of themselves as English students, especially themselves as writers. By that point in their Urban careers, they've written enough self-evaluations to begin to see themselves more clearly and honestly.

But I don't just teach juniors and seniors. I spend just as much time with freshmen and sophomores. What I found from an informal survey I took of students is that they do have a sense of what it means to succeed in English: they say that English is about analytical self-expression, in class discussion and in writing. And that's generally true. They say that they see how they're doing by reading comments on their papers, by the way I react to their comments in class, and by seeing how their peers react to what they say. They wish I could write even more on their papers and that they could see a timeline of progress toward the elusive goal of English perfection. I want that goal to seem less elusive.

I'm not going to write more on their papers; I write too much as is. So much of the challenge of teaching, and teaching well, is achieving balance between work and life. Yes, teaching is an all-consuming profession. But I don't want to be consumed by it. Pursuing a full life gives me more space in my teaching, gives me more reserves to draw on, and gives me more air to breathe.

But I wonder about how to get my students to chart their own progress, so they can better see their growth over time. Some initial thoughts:
  • Students create their own set of goals at the beginning of the term (I already have them do this, but less formally). As they achieve each goal, they can check it off and add a new goal.
  • I could read papers and make marginal notes and fill out a rubric for them (already a standard practice: students self-evaluate on the rubric first). But instead of an end note, I could take 5 minutes to talk with each student about the goals of the paper, what it has done well, and what needs work. Then students write in their own words what they are proud of and what they'd like to work on. The obvious constraint here is time. And this idea doesn't get at getting students to see/evaluate their participation in class.
Obviously, neither of the above ideas is perfect. But what they all have in common is a focus on getting the students to see themselves as essential parts of their own learning process. That's the goal. I want them to think of English as something they can do: I want them to show themselves to be insightful readers and speakers, and writers who write authentically, from the heart. They are all capable of achieving this ideal, but I don't think they all see the way to get there.