Archives For #NCTE13 and #CEL13

In the spirit of all end of the year reviews, I have condensed the year 2013 by offering month by month posts from this blog that illustrated the best student (and subsequently, teacher) learning:

January 2013: A Freshman’s Modern Odyssey in the Style of Homer

"Dawn spread her rosy fingers..."

“Dawn spread her rosy fingers…”

The Freshmen final project after reading The Odyssey is a narrative that students complete called “The Wamogossey: A Day in the Life of a Freshman at Wamogo High School.” Writing narratives are once again favored in  Common Core State Standards, and this post explained how students made their own attempt at an epic adventure.

February 2013:  Spilling Over the Corners of a Six Word Text

Short Story in 6 words

Short Story in 6 words

This exercise proves that keeping students “within the four corners of the text” is impossible, even when the text, attributed to Ernest Hemingway, is only six words long. This post also serves as evidence that that admonitions on best practices should be limited to those with actual classroom experience, not to the “architects of the Common Core.”

March 2013 If You Want to Watch the Cow Give Birth

Watching the arrival of our latest calf

Watching the arrival of our latest calf

Yes, “If you want to watch the cow give birth, turn on U-stream now!” was an announcement over the PA system. Normally, I am irritated by interruptions to class time, but this announcement cued students about opportunity watch the birth of a calf in the Agricultural Science wing of our high school. The combination of technology in broadcasting and recording the birth of the newest member of the agricultural program with old-fashioned “hands on” physical labor illustrates 21st Century authentic learning.

April 2013 You Never Forget Your First Hamlet

Members of the senior class were fortunate enough to see Paul Giamatti’s “Hamlet” at Yale Repertory Theatre. I’ll let their words speak for the experience:

The performance was a wonderful experience, especially since it was my first time to see Shakespeare.

I wouldn’t mind going to another because it was so enjoyable that I didn’t even realize the 4 hours passing by.

I like the way that a play has a certain kind of vibe. It’s like a live concert, where there’s a certain kind of energy.

It was like seeing a live performance of a film. I would especially like to see another Shakespeare because it is the way that he intended his works to be portrayed.

After seeing Hamlet so well done, it would definitely be worth going to see another one whether it be Shakespeare or a different kind of performance.

May 2013 Kinesthetic Greek and Latin Roots

Spelling "exo"=outside

Spelling “exo”=outside

Understanding Greek and Latin roots is critical to decoding vocabulary, so when the freshman had a long list of roots to memorize, we tried a kinesthetic approach. The students used their fingers to spell out Greek roots: ant (against), tech (skill), exo (outside).  They twisted their bodies into letters and spread out against the wall spelling out xen (foreign), phob (fear). They also scored very well on the quizzes as a result!

June 2013 Superteachers!

Superteacher!

Superteacher!

At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, teachers rose to a “friendship and respect” challenge to make a video. With a little help from a green screen, 27 members of the faculty representing a wide variety of disciplines jumped into the nearby closet wearing the big “W” (for Wamogo). Students in the video production class watched and filmed in amazement as, bearing some artifact from a particular subject area, each teacher donned a flowing red cape.

July 2013 Library Book Sales: Three Bags Full!

The original purpose of this blog was to show how I filled classroom libraries with gently used books. The Friends of the C.H. Booth Library Book Sale in Newtown, Connecticut, is one of the premier books sales in the state: well-organized tables filled with excellent quality used books, lots of attentive check-out staff, and great prices. This year, I added three large bags of books to our classroom libraries for $152.00, a discount of 90% off retail!

August 2013 Picture Books Are not for Kindergarten Any More!Cat in Hat book cover

At used book sales, I am always looking for picture books I can use in high school classrooms. For example, I use The Cat in the Hat to explain Freud’s theory of the Id, Ego and Superego . Thing #1 and Thing #2 represent Id, and that righteous fish? The Superego. Yes, Dr. Seuss is great for psychological literary criticism, but he is not the only picture book in my repertoire of children’s literature used in high school. This post features a few of my favorite picture books to use and why.

September 2013 Close Reading with Saki and the Sophomores

Saki’s short stories open our World Literature course in which our students will be reading complex texts required by the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (CCSS). After a “close reading” the conversations in the room showed the text’s complexity. Saki’s The Interlopers has all the elements suggested by the CCSS:  figurative language, the ironic wish, and multiple meaning in the revenge sought by man versus the revenge exacted by Nature. Our close reading should have been “textbook”. The evidence proved the characters’ demise…or did it? The ensuing discussion forced the class to consider other positions.

October 2013 Close Reading Art

The Fighting Temeraire

The Fighting Temeraire

After “close reading” short stories, the sophomores were asked to use the same skills to “close read” several paintings that thematically connected to the Industrial Revolution. They studied a Constable pastoral painting, before J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting, The Fighting Temeraire. While some called attention to the the dirty smoke stack, others saw the energetic paddling as a sign of progress. They noticed the ghost-like ship hovering in the background, the light created by the sunset which gave the painting “warmth”or “light extinguishing”. When they were asked to use these elements as evidence to determine the artist’s message, there were some succinct responses to the painting’s “text.”

November 2013 Thanks for the NCTE Conference

Five members of the English Department attended the conference and selected from over 700 sessions at the National Council of Teachers of English and the Conference on English Leadership.  District support for such great professional development is truly appreciated. We are also grateful that four of our proposals were chosen to share as presentations for other educators. The explanations of our presentations with links to these presentations are included in this post.

December 2013 Drama Class Holiday Miracle

Cast photo!

Cast photo!

An ice storm two weeks before performance caused a car pile-up, and the drama club teacher was left with a concussion. She could not be in school; the students were on their own, and I was left to supervise their performances of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at three local elementary schools.

Their “dress rehearsal” was a disaster, but, as the adage says, “The show must go on!” and once they arrived at the elementary schools, the students were anxious to do well. They naturally changed their staging moving from gym floor to library floor, the Evil Queen tossed her hair with anger, and the Prince strode onto the stage with more confidence. The dwarves were a source of comic relief, intentionally or not. I watched the holiday miracle of 2013 repeated three times that day. The students in drama class at each school were applauded, with congratulatory e-mails from the principals that offered praise.

End of the year note:

I am grateful to be an educator and to have the privilege to work with students that I learn from everyday. In this retrospective, I can state unequivocally that 2013 was a memorable year… as you can see from many of the reasons listed above.

Welcome to 2014! May this coming year be even more productive!

“A bad dress rehearsal foretells a great performance.”

red curtain

This theatrical superstition is a great comfort to those who botch lines, drop lines, break props, or miss entrance cues before performing in front of an audience. Rehearsals are for practice, to fix what could go wrong so that the performance before a critical audience is perfect.

In contrast, there are no “rehearsals” in the classroom, yet the language of teacher evaluation standards repeatedly uses the word “perform” and “performance”.  There are teacher performance standards, and there are student performance measurements.

Perhaps the most authentic way to describe what happens in any classroom is that each lesson is a dress rehearsal. A teacher can plan the elements of a lesson, ( objective, resources/materials, directions, and assessment), and those scripted elements can look good on paper. A teacher can design a lesson for for a particular audience,  but what can happen in the classroom is a guess. Sometimes, a lesson plan fails; a teacher has a bad dress rehearsalEven if that lesson plan is repeated over the course of a day, there was a first audience of students that was engaged in that dress rehearsal of a lesson.

What teachers do is practice teaching, and practice is another word repeated in teacher evaluation. There are, however,  two meanings of the word practice, each depending on its syntactical use. When the word practice is used as a noun, as in the “practice of teaching”, then the word means:

  • the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method as opposed to theories about such application or use.

When the word practice is used as a verb, it means:

  • to do something again and again in order to become better at it
  • to do (something) regularly or constantly as an ordinary part of your life

The language of teacher evaluation focuses on the word practice as a noun. There is limited use of the word practice as a verb except as an expectation. A teacher is expected to have practiced, or rehearsed, teaching strategies with a group of students. For this reason, teachers try to schedule a “no-fail” lesson plan for a formal observation, perhaps a lesson that has been practiced successfully in previous classes. This small advantage means that an evaluator will see a lesson with all the bells and whistles, a kind of performance.

But what about the “drop-in” evaluation? What kind of teaching practice will an evaluator see in the raw rehearsal environment of the classroom? What happens when a lesson goes horribly wrong, and an evaluator is in the room?

At a session offered by the Council of English Leadership at the National Council of Teachers of English Conference held last month in Boston, Massachusetts, nationally recognized teacher of the year Sarah Brown Wessling openly admitted to lesson failure. Wessling, a English/Language Arts teacher in Johnston, Iowa, was being filmed by The Teaching Channel when the lesson she designed went wrong, a true bad dress rehearsal taking place in real time in front of the cameras.

“I knew they (Teaching Channel) would want this footage,” she admitted laughing to crowded room of teachers, “Oh, I knew they would want this failure!”

The videos that resulted from her failure are some of the most popular on The Teaching Channel website. There are uncut versions plus the final production video (16 mins) that records how she quickly reconfigures the lesson for a different class. The transcript from the video is included on the website. 

Wessling’s voice-over begins:

For a teacher, some days you win, some days you lose.  My third hour tenth-grade English class came completely unhinged, and I had five minutes in which to repurpose it for fourth hour.

She readily admits that even the most veteran teachers experience problems:

No matter how accomplished you are or how effective you are as a teacher, I think these days are going to happen, so when they do, you have to make adjustments.

In her narration, she noted that, “By the time we get to this point, I’ve been in front of the class almost the whole class period, and that was not my intention.”

The video shows her trying to re-engage students in her planned activity. She considers:

Then there was this moment where I realized that I had completely misfired because one of my students did start to read when I asked them to, and she read the first paragraph, and she raised her hand and she said, “I don’t know what any of these words mean.”

Wessling’s final analysis of the lesson’s failure is her admission that:

I opted to try to meet the standards, make sure that the common assessment that I share with the rest of my department meets the criteria of what we had talked about earlier in this year.  In thinking about the adults, I compromised the needs of the kids.

The power of this video is that while this nationally recognized teacher’s bad dress rehearsal informed her practice, it is her training in classrooms that allowed her to redesign the lesson on the fly. Wessling’s second attempt, five minutes after the first class left, is much smoother, as she admits:

We have to be careful with our expectations and realize that we can still teach to these heightened expectations, but it’s going to have to come at a pace that makes sense to the kids who are in front of us.

So how would an evaluator who dropped in on Wessling’s first attempt rate her as a teacher? Would there be a consideration of this first lesson as a “dress rehearsal”?More important, what is the possibility that an evaluator could have stayed to watch the redesign of the lesson to see how her repeated and authentic training in the classroom, her practice, helped her with her teaching practice, her application of teaching methods? Wessling’s first attempt would not meet the criteria in the higher ratings (proficient, exemplary) of many teacher evaluation programs, but her training allowed her to address the needs of the students in subsequent efforts.

The video captures Wessling and her students a rehearsal of learning, which is what happens in every classroom everyday, to nationally ranked teachers, to veterans, and  to novices. Teachers and their students are always rehearsing. Evaluators must consider that the language of teacher evaluation should not be misconstrued. 

There is no performance in the classroom, and even a bad dress rehearsal can still be a great lesson.

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 12.50.41 PMThe National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the Council on English Leadership (CEL) met for a convention last week (11/21-26/13) at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, Massachusetts. Thousands of English teachers and educators (happily) put aside their piles of essays and their red pens in order to attend to participate in a nationwide conversation on teaching English/Language Arts at all grade levels. This annual conference runs the weekend before the Thanksgiving holiday, and this year there were many reasons to be thankful that such a great opportunity exists. Here are our specific thanks to all of those who made this conference amazing.

Thanks to our Regional School District #6 in Connecticut for allowing us to attend:

Our first and most important thanks is to the administration, Board of Education, and staff from Regional School District #6 that allowed five members of the English Department at Wamogo Middle/High School to attend the conference and select from over 700 sessions offered from Thursday night-Sunday afternoon.  District support for such great professional development is truly appreciated!

Thanks to the program chairs who selected our proposals:

Members of Wamogo Middle/High School English/Language Arts department submitted a variety of proposals last year to demonstrate how we use technology in our classrooms. We are grateful that four of our proposals were chosen to share as presentations for other educators. The explanations of our presentations with links to these presentations are included below:

The Blog’s the Thing! (NCTE) roundtable discussion

This presentation demonstrated the use of the blog platform for students to engage in thoughtful discussion on characters and themes from Hamlet by having students “stop the action” of the play to offer advice to characters during different scenes.

Reinventing the Writing Workshop with Digital Literacy to Improve Student Engagement (NCTE)

Technology has reinvented the Writing Workshop in meeting the needs of 21st Century learners with the addition of digital literacies. This presentation features open source software platforms appropriate to the different tasks, purposes and audiences for writing instruction along with examples of student work and grading criteria.

How We Mooo-ved Our District from Cows to Computer (CEL)

This presentation illustrated how professional development in our district was organized on the ED Camp model to allow any teacher who would like to share their expertise or simply discuss a problem with fellow staff or faculty members.These technology initiatives have allowed members of the English Department to help teachers assess, organize, deliver context materials and related readings (fiction and non-fiction) that improve students’ digital literacy as well as foster independence in each student’s growth in reading.

Digital Writing with Collaboration (CEL)

This presentation showed how preparing students to write for the real world  (21st Century skills) must include the collaborative experience, from the initial creation to the final product. The use of digital platforms allows students to be college and career ready through the production and distribution of collaborative writing.

Thanks to the many teachers and educators who presented:

We are also thankful that so many other classroom teachers and educators from all over the USA shared their best classrooms practices. Our collective regret is that we could not attend every session that appealed to us; the jam-packed schedule defied our best attempts at strategic selection. We agreed, however, that quality of the presentations we did get to attend was amazing and relevant to what we do every day. The conference reinforced the importance of teacher-to-teacher professional development.

Thanks to the book publishers who made books available for classroom libraries:

The NCTE Convention offers book publishers opportunity to put advanced reader copies of fiction and non-fiction into the hands of teachers at every grade level. While publishers hope to catch the attention of teachers who will recommend the book to students, teachers look for books to add to their classroom library collection. Many publishers also make books available at a reduced cost  for the same reason. For example, I picked up several copies of books in the “After the Dust Settled” series (apocalyptic young adult literature) by Jonathan Mary-Todd for $2/copy, a purchase made necessary because these books keep disappearing off our classroom library shelves.

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 12.51.29 PM

Our “haul” from the NCTE Convention from book publishers and authors…headed for our classroom libraries.

 

Thanks to the authors who gave away signed copies of their books:

The tote bags distributed free to all registrants bore popular author Nicholas Spark’s imprimatur, a visual testament to the celebrity draw of authors at this convention. Authors are the rock stars at this convention: the children’s book authors rock, the young adult authors rock, and the educator trade book authors rock. Attendees stood in lines snaking around booths on the convention floor waiting to meet authors and have books signed. In the past, my request to an author is to have the book signed with the phrase “READ ME!” on the inside cover. I had the same done this year, so when a student asks what to read, I will point that the author has already made a suggestion to read the book.

There were also a number of authors representing a variety of genres who served as keynote speakers including: Neal ShustermanTeri Lesesne, Laurie Halse AndersonKelly Gallagher, Walter Dean MyersIshmael Beah, and Robert Pinsky. 

We are so thankful to have the opportunity to personally meet and mingle with the rock stars of the convention!

Thanks for the Tweeters:

Finally, the fingers of dedicated Tweeters attending the convention kept us abreast of all the events at the conference. There was a steady stream of information from sessions we could not attend, summaries of keynotes addresses, and updates as to upcoming book signings. The hashtags #NCTE13 and #CEL13 were invaluable sources for notes and quotes during the convention and for well after we left Boston.  For example, some Friday session tweets were archived onto the Storify platform for later use.

Next year, the NCTE Convention is scheduled for Washington, D.C., which gives me one more reason to be thankful…the convention is within driving distance!