Monthly Archives: November 2012

Week 13- That’s Me, Local Screw-Up


Well, I screwed up.  Got too big for my britches.  Caused myself a whole mess of work.  As it says on the tag line, this is a journal of reflection which means looking at where we make mistakes as well as reveling in our successes.

I often regale people with stories of how wonderful peer revision is.  Except when you don’t teach it correctly.  Then, it’s hell on wheels.  And it’s a little hot down here.

For most of the class, this is their second paper.  For some, it’s their ninth.  So, when it came time for students to score each others’ papers using the 6+1 Writing Trait of Idea and Content, I assumed (catch that: ass, u, me) that the students would be confident enough to give each other helpful feedback.  (In my head, I hear Dr. Bob Kelso from Scrubs shouting: “WRONG-O!”  I loved that show.  I’d be really worried if the voice was Dr. Cox’s.  That’s when I know I’ve really put my foot in it.)  Because of my rush, returning students did not feel that they received enough feedback to make peer revision worthwhile, while some of the new students were not sure what to say.  One of my students gave such cock-eyed feedback to the writer of the paper she was revising that he was practically in tears.

So, as hard as it is to look at my screw-ups, learning is in the reflection, and here is what I think I did wrong.

1) I allowed myself to be rushed.  The rubric for the returning students was significantly harder than what they had before, and they needed more time.  Some of the new students also needed more time to put their thoughts in order.  I give myself a month to shepherd students through this process, and as I saw that they were working their tushies off but needing more time, I gave it to them.  However, I did not really take into account what that would mean in the end game.*

2) Because they did such a great job scoring each others’ papers the first time, I didn’t take the time to review properly.  I needed to have reminded myself that we have all slept since then, this is new material for many students, and I’m a dumb bunny.  Just remembering the dumb bunny part would have reminded me to take more time to practice giving feedback.  (This is commonly called anchoring.)

3) The pairings.  I had new students reading old students papers and vice versa.  I’m still not convinced I should change that part.  The cool thing about pairings like that is that the returning student’s paper helps the new student to see what is possible.  It is a model for them for future drafts.  The returning students also give very good feedback.  But this time, it wasn’t reciprocal.  The returnees didn’t feel they were getting enough back.  In the early days of class, the returning students felt honored to help their classmates, but that was when they were confident with the rubric.  Now, it feels to them like a drag because they aren’t getting the help they need.  Two of the students almost panicked when they got their paper back with a score (which were accurate) but very little information on where revisions were needed.  I almost paired them exclusively with each other, and I probably should have listened to myself.

4) This process usually takes about 50 minutes.  I knew I was in trouble when many of the pairings had not finished conferencing at the end of class.  The process wasn’t fluid.  I saw it, and I did not intervene.  Bad teacher.

So, how much damage have I done?  It’s hard to tell.  Ted, the founder of my last school, likes to say that our mistakes are transient, and our successes are enduring, meaning that it is not our mistakes that define us.  I really, really try to believe this.

But it does not mean I can write off this mistake and just “do it better” next time.  I need to fix the mistake.  To do this, I’ve been meeting with frustrated students to help them see what to do next.  I’m reading the returning students’ papers with an eye to seeing if their reader, at least, gave them a holistic score that was correct, and giving them particulars to revise.  And reminding them that their readers are new to this process.

I’m meeting with new students to help them pinpoint what is on the paper which can be seen in the rubric so that they can give better feedback next time.  I’m having that one student meet with me so I can re-teach her, and having her do an extra scoring of a paper so that I can be sure that she can participate next time.

We will not be writing a full paper for December.  It is a half-month of school, and I don’t expect that we will get to do a peer scoring for a Humanities paper.  So, we won’t get to do a process like this for expository writing until January.  However, students are currently working on some creative writing that could be used.  I will certainly grab the overhead and have students anchor a few papers before I let them go on that.

All of this is a lot of unnecessary extra work I created for myself.  This is what living and learning feels like.  Living and learning also means using the knowledge I gained from having to fix my mistakes.  God grant I put to use what I’ve learned this week and last.

*Note: I never blame students for not knowing something.  One of my biggest peeves as a teacher is hearing other teachers say, “Well, they should know this.”  Bullshit.  If they knew it, they would do it.  They want to get it right.  Only in cases of very damaged kids do you get that kind of oppositional behavior.  It isn’t something that happens in normal life.  If they don’t know it, it is because the student is in the wrong level of class or you, dear teacher, haven’t taught it.  I always want to say to these people, “Pull your thumb out and stop blaming your students.”

Week 12 – A Worthy Birdwalk: Crying in Front of Students


Yeah it happens.  Here’s how it happened today:

We were reading Chapter 10 of The Aeneid for Boys and Girls where Virgil calls upon the reader’s knowledge of the story of Daedalus.  As you know, I have a very precocious group of 5th and 6th graders who all had some understanding of the story.  And as they began to fill each other in on their understanding of it, the story became weirder and weirder, as stories do in mass tellings.  So, to bring some clarification, I pulled up Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: The Greek Myths on Netflix.  (Thank god for Netflix.  I own this disc, but it is at home right now.  I would have missed a valuable opportunity for a teachable moment which is slightly off topic, otherwise known as a “birdwalk”.)

I pulled it up and showed them the one on Daedalus.  The Storyteller is played by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and Daedalus is played by Brother Caedfael (Or King Lear, if you saw that production.  Some of you might know him as Sir Derek Jacobi) to give you some idea of the quality.  The video pulls no punches.  People die.  People are murdered, but it is tempered with a sweet dog who says what we are thinking. I cried three times.  Once when Talos falls, once when Icarus falls, and once at the end when Daedalus is all alone with his pain and thousands of little clay figures.  Then, the lights came up.

The story moved me.  It is sad.  And as I looked around, I noticed I was not the only one with red-rimmed eyes, snuffling into a kleenex.  Yet, as uncomfortable as it is to cry in front of students, I stopped worrying about it a few years ago when I realized that I am human.

Ludicrous as it sounds, in the classroom, I sometimes feel that I have to be happy! and glowing! and positive! all the damn time.  It’s wearing.  Being a real human means that I can sniffle when Hector’s wife Andromache begs him not to go into the fray.  I can blubber away at Ken Burn’s Civil War.  I can feel.

And, yes, I think it does make some of my students uncomfortable.  But they get to see me not shying away from what makes me sad, they see me shake my head and move on, and they see that it is okay to show your feelings.

I’ve never had a student make fun of me, or at least, not in my presence, which is all I can ask.  Students have checked in with me later to see if I was okay.  This has allowed for some very deep conversations with students about what we saw and what it meant for us.

Do I recommend crying as a teaching tool?  Heavens no.  But I do suggest that when it is real, be real.

At the close of the video, we all could see how the Greeks were able to tap into those deep emotions,and Jim Henson’s company illustrates this beautifully.  As it is the day before Thanksgiving, we tied the lessons learned to being grateful for family and loved ones.  Then I passed back an assignment students did two days ago where they each wrote one thing they were thankful for about each of their classmates.  After the video, each student received a letter with a thank you for something from every member of the class, including me.  (We also did one for our school secretary.)  It was a nice way to bring us out of our Greek inspired pathos.

As Dr. Haim Ginott once said, “I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom.  It’s my daily mood that makes the weather.  As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.  I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.  I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.  In all situations, it is my response that decided whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.”

What he means is more in response to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, but I think he would agree, that my students seeing me in a moment of honest humanity, allows them to be humane.
Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

Week 12 – The Aeneid, or Laundry?


So I spent my evening drawing a map of the travels of Aeneas.  To be honest, I went to the oracle (Google) and found a black line copy (or as close as I can get) of the Mediterranean.  I blew it up as big as possible on the photocopier, which resulted in less line and more smudge.  And that is why I am spending the evening before my family descends upon us for Thanksgiving, black Precise Grip pen in hand, copying over the map for my yahoots tomorrow.

I promised them a map for The Aeneid weeks ago, but something always seemed to get in the way.  Now that they have learned what happened to poor Queen Dido, have seen the nasty boxing match, and shot the dove, they need a map.  So, tomorrow, I will give them an 11 by 17 copy, and they will make a statement about each place Aeneas has landed so far in our reading.

The book they are reading is not actually Virgil’s “Aeneid”.  It is, in fact, The Aeneid for Boys and Girls by Alfred J. Church.  It was published in 1908, and this, I think, excuses him somewhat for the horribly pedantic title.  But the text is good.  The story is solid, and the students seem to really enjoy it.  Church tells the story chronologically.  However, I did have to have my students listen to Simon Callow’s reading of the original translated into English.  It simply makes my knees weak.  But, as much as I would love to have my students read it in its original verse (again, translated), I think we would lose them.  And, as I said, Church’s version is engaging.

So, for writing class tomorrow, we will review the story by way of the map.  They had better appreciate the fact that I’m preparing for them instead of folding clothes.
My family will probably understand.

Week 12 – Toga! Toga! Toga!


As I’ve said before, we like to watch documentaries in my History class.  There are two very unlikely texts that go together so well.  One is a series of bombastic thrill rides from the History Channel, and the other is a few chapters from an old book by an old fart.  I love them both.

First we watch Cities of the Underworld: Rome, the Rise.  The idea is that you can dig down a few feet and see the actual structures of the Roman world.  It is fascinating!  I got to do a very little bit of that on a trip to Jerusalem, and man, it brings the history home.  And, for my students who have read Terry Pratchett, there is the connection with Ankh-Morpork and the underground chases in Men at Arms.

There are a few issues I have with these films.  The music just about knocks you over.  It’s loud, sometimes so much so that my students complain that they can’t hear the historians, and my copies do not have Closed Captioning for some reason.  (Grrr.)  And there is always the perennial problem of superlative abuse.  My students have gotten to the point that they shout out when they hear them.  Also, hosts Erik Geller and Don Wildman in their individual shows both have something of a potty mouth (tsk, tsk, tsk).  Thank goodness for bleeps.

But you get to see the old architecture, the building materials, left over bones, and artifacts.  You get to walk with them where the old Romans were.  Students can see CGI reproductions of the buildings and how they changed over time.  The directors and writers picked well in terms of showing the different elements of Roman architecture as well as finding historians who are very interesting.

Students take Cornell Notes on the information learned and will later study them for the test.

The text I pair with this video is The Greek and Roman World, chapter 7, by W.G. Hardy, published in 1960.*  Woo-hoo, is this man nerdy!  But he wrote great essays.  His word choice is fantastic.  Almost every paragraph has either a hook or a transition, and almost all paragraphs have a clear topic sentence.  In groups of three, students look up any words they don’t know as they read the chapter together, highlighting topic sentences, which they will later transfer into their notes.

Hardy puts the entirety of the Roman world in perspective, and helps students to see the big picture.  He clothes the world for students in a way that helps them to see it in color.  Even more so after they view the videos.

We will then turn back to the videos, this time watching Cities of the Underworld: Hidden Empire.  This installment has more on the major constructions and a real look at the Roman arch.  This one is also with Erik Geller.

Then we turn to chapter 8 of Hardy, “The Romans at Work and Play.”  This essay is probably my favorite.  It takes the students inside the homes and workplaces of the Romans.  It gives rules for behavior and walks you down the street.  A great companion for the videos.

Finally, we will watch Gladiators: Blood Sport.  This one is with Wildman (an alumnus of my alma mater, Earlham College.  Hee!).  He takes you under the Coliseum for a look at the sport from the competitors’ point of view.  It takes a little editing because of some sexual content, but there are so many questions from students about the sport and this video answers a lot of them.

And so we turn back to Hardy and his chapter 9, an essay on the excesses of the Roman world.  After seeing the gladiator video, students are primed to take in this text.

By the time we are done, students have a pretty clear picture of the depth and breadth of the lives lived by the ancients.  Gone are the cardboard cutouts and marble busts of the history books, and in walk the rich, the poor, the women, the children, the gladiators (both men and women) and slaves in the neighborhoods, the necropolises, the palaces, and the communal spaces they inhabited.

I’m so excited that I can hardly wait for them to finish the first chapter!

* Special thanks go to my mentor teacher for History, Jeff Day.  He introduced me to awesome history texts that have helped me up my teaching game!  Thanks, Yoda!

Week 11 – Numbing, Dumbing Numbers


I heard on 94.9 KUOW this morning how Seattle Public Schools are starting to institute test scores as a measure of teacher performance.  Let me state, first off, that I teach in a private school, where I am the Supervising Teacher, blessed and honored to be trusted with the curriculum for my cohort.  I have total transparency with my administration, I base my curriculum on best practices, the state standards of Washington, Oregon, and California, and what I have learned over 16 years of being in the trenches.  Blessed with this bounty, I have no right — nothing, zero, zip, nil — to contribute to this conversation, except this: What the hell are they thinking?!?

Let me tell you a little story.*  I was honored to work at Brownell Academy in Gilroy, California (yes, children, the garlic capital of the world).  I was let loose on my first public school classroom there.  I came into the classroom as a long-term substitute, and left, three years later, with a masters of education, all in the same classroom.  My love of teaching was tempered in the crucible of a caring, loving, and might I say, damn-good middle school.

It was not perfect.  It had over 1,000 students.  It fought like a tiger with the “other” middle school.  It had some teachers I, personally, would have loved to drop kick over Niagara Falls.  It was riddled with the urban poor, the rural poor, immigrants out the wazoo, the pretentious over-wealthy, not to mention gang and drug problems.  But it had, in the face of all of that, the most caring and hopeful staff I have ever (probably will ever) see in a school.  We had a principal who really did give a damn.  Which is funny because her last name was, in fact, Damm.

And here is how that school was gutted like a trout.  The year before I arrived, the school was only a 7-8 school.  District politics mandated that the school needed to have a 6th grade.  And so, my first year, Brownell had its first 6th grade cohort.  I only taught 7th grade, but I heard from many other teachers that when the elementary schools were allowed to pick and choose the students they could send up to the middle school, they did not hesitate to send the students who were troublemakers.  And so, our school was “gifted” with 6th graders who struggled in elementary school and were somewhat bound to struggle in middle school.

Evidently, the district and the state were already looking towards evaluating teachers by test scores.  In this case, they were not looking at individual teachers, but at the composite scores by grade level.  Instead of looking at the same cohort as it grew from grade to grade, it compared one year’s class to the next year’s class (i.e., one year’s sixth graders against the next year’s sixth graders, and so forth).  So, although our test scores were actually the highest in the county, because the incoming new 6th grade had no previous year’s 6th grade to compare against, we were labeled as a “struggling school.”  Then, the next year, the new 7ths were compared with the last year’s 7ths.  Not surprisingly, the scores took a major dive, even though there was clear growth within the cohort.  Again, we were labeled a “struggling school” and the state stepped in.

This may sound familiar to other schools who went through the beginnings of the deliberately obtuse No Child Left Behind law (Which I read. All 1,000 pages of it).  You might have noticed that it happened to be the states with Democratic Governors in which schools were first labeled as “struggling”.  So, our school went through “trainings”, “re-trainings”, and finally “basic gutting”.  It was humiliating.  Furthermore, I can’t imagine how much money was wasted trying to turn what was already a great school into a “great school”.

It so happened that we had many excited, talented, young teachers (my friends) working on their credentials.  Most of whom had to quit because their credentials did not show up in time to meet some arbitrary deadline.  This was imposed upon “struggling” schools by NCLB, and enforced by the district office, which was desperate to secure the federal funding that comes with agreeing to implement NCLB.  Meanwhile, every desk at the district office had a flat-screen computer monitor in the days when these were still quite pricey, while my classroom only had the IT equipment that I could afford to provide by myself, on my meager starting-teacher salary.  But I digress.

When I left Brownell (my credential had squeaked in with days to spare, but I was moving to Japan to be with my husband), the school was in a defeated, ugly mood.  I felt a like a rat leaving a sinking ship.  And none of it would have happened if the state and the district had taken a better look at what was really happening in the classrooms.

And here I have to stop and take a deep breath.  I know that, when we replace real knowledge of people and environments with scores and numbers, we lose sight of what is most important.  When we take the easy route, we discover that ultimately, it ain’t cheap.  Students lose.  Teachers lose.  Our civilization will lose.

Here’s my experience with that.  My third year there, I was teaching a remedial English course.  Three quarters of the way through the year, the district sent some lackey into my room, during a class, to ask me why my students were so far behind the other teacher’s class with the same curriculum.  He was only interested in the number of pages we had covered and with hurrying me up, no matter what my students needed.   So, while my students were taking their Friday exam, this moron was grilling me about my speed.  I remember clearly, almost as if it was a slow motion film, the 32 heads (they had said they would limit the class to 24) starting to lift and turn around to look at us.  I was so angry at this man who so casually waltzed into my classroom and disrupted my students, that I flipped open my grade book and pointed to the grades.  Not one score under 89%.  Not more than two scores under 95%.

I fear I’m proving myself wrong here.  The difference between my numbers and Mr. District Office’s numbers is simply that I knew what my numbers actually meant.  I watched my students work hard every day.  I watched them sweat, struggle, and become successful, growing into those kinds of scores.  My students were learning, and they knew it.  He only knew what page I was on and what it would cost the school if my group didn’t finish the text before the end of the year. And silly me, when they said they wanted literacy for every child in the district, I believed they were willing to pay what it cost in both time and money.  It didn’t matter.  By the end of the year students in our team rose from a 3rd grade to a 6th grade reading level.  Almost unheard of.

Feeling the weight of 32 7th graders listening in, I told him that when the other teacher could prove that kind of success while moving that fast, he could come talk to me.  Because I would be damned if I was going to lose one child’s opportunity to be literate because he thought I should go faster.  And then, I told him he could get the hell out of my classroom. I might have stomped my foot, I can’t remember. Once the door had shut, I glared at my students.  All heads snapped back down as if on a spring.  (I’m 4′ 9″.  Napoleon’s got nothing on me.) I never heard a thing more, ever, from the District Office about… well, anything.  I’m kind of surprised I continued to get my paycheck.

I still know people who teach at Brownell.  I know people who teach in that district.  Some of them are those who lost their jobs that summer.  They are good people, I think fondly of all of them, and my heart still hurts for the pain they suffered because someone decided to look at numbers over people.

Number crunching Bastards.

And when I got home, I saw this.  It made me feel a little better.  A word of warning — it’s for adults.  (Or at least, those of us who think of ourselves as adults.)

* The story I tell here is accurate to the extent I remember it.  It is from my point of view, which is open to debate. I always reserve the right to be wrong and don’t mind people correcting me as long as they do it kindly and with good intentions.

Week 11 – The Senators of Toad


“I pledge allegiance to the Toad. And to the school at which I play.  And to the cooperation with which it works.  One class, under redwoods, with goofiness and giddiness for all.”

Last week a student asked, as we delved into the Roman Republic, “What is a senate?”  Instead of giving the students a bland definition or drawing a picture on the board, I dug around in my brain for some example which would have a more immediate meaning.  Then my eye caught our three Toads.

Now let me take you back about a year or so.

Our students get a 20 minute physical education section during their day.  It’s an opportunity for them to play organized, structured games.  Because we have such a large wooded campus, students often like to play chase type games outside when it is sunny and warm.  However, once it becomes chilly and cloudy, students like to be inside where we play running and stopping type games.  One perennial favorite is dodge ball.

Now, let me say at the outset that I hate this game.  When I was a kid, I didn’t mind it, or at least I don’t remember disliking it.  I was small and fast and generally pretty hard to hit until the bigger kids were out.  But as an adult, I hate supervising it.  Some kid always throws too hard.  Some kid always doesn’t want to admit they’re out.  Some kid always ends up with a nose bleed.  As a way to sow discord among children, you cannot go wrong with dodge ball.

To combat the nose issue, our school requires students to wear those stupid goggles.  (I never really understood how the goggles protect the students, but there it is.)  Generally, the threat of having to don the goggles keeps most students from voting to play dodge ball.  (Maybe this is their one and only function.  Who knows?)  Anyway, students were wanting badly to throw things at each other, and we couldn’t find the goggles.  What to do? What to do?

I thought of my stuffed Toad.  My husband is a denizen of Nintendo of America, and he likes to give me toys from their shop.  He had given me a six-inch stuffed red-capped Toad.  It’s so completely un-aerodynamic that I use it for such indoor games as “Silent Toad” and “The Lord Mayor’s Cat”.  (Silent Toad is when I give the students a topic and they toss Toad around to each other saying a word for the topic.   If they can’t think of something, or they talk out of turn, or they fall off their desk, they have to sit down.)  Toad is also totally soft, with no hard parts to put anybody’s eye out.  I told students they could play a type of dodge ball using Toad.

They were thrilled.  So, down we trucked to the gym.  Where, predictably, all hell broke loose.  Although they all said they “knew the rules,” it became clear that there were about six different versions of the game happening at once and many, many accusations of cheating.

So, I sat them all down on the floor, and we began to construct a game that would work for everybody.  I forget who came up with the idea that the Toad chucker could only chuck said Toad at the chuck-ees after the chucker had taken three steps, but it was a brilliant idea and it became the basis for the now long running game of “Three-Step Toad”.

But even then, it was not an easy road.  Students argued about the rules and tried to make the game work for them.  What politician doesn’t?  Finally, I grabbed a big piece of paper, and we as a group, wrote down the rules.  I added one caveat: the students had to come to consensus on all of the rules.  (Yup. I’m a Quaker.)  After a few days of hammering this out, this is what we ended up with:

And you can see that over the course of last year and this, we have added, subtracted, clarified, and generally mucked about with the rules.  So why do I tell you all of this?  Because what they have done is to painstakingly construct a type of constitution which governs the behavior of students in their PE life.  At the beginning of this year, we ratified this constitution for the benefit of new students.  Again, we needed to come to consensus as a class, but once the rules were set, we’ve had very few deaths… er, I mean problems.  (You know what they say, “No autopsy, no foul.”)

So, when my student asked that very simple question, “What is a senate?”, I was able to turn to the rules of our game and say, “When you lobbied for your point of view, and you negotiated with other people on their points of view, and you came to agreement on what is best for and fairest for this game, you were following in the footsteps of the ancient Athenians, the Romans, and countless other democracies.  You were being, in effect, a senator.  Now you tell me: what is a senate?”