Monthly Archives: March 2013

Week 27 – Stop Slandering My Students


Here is a letter I sent to KOMO News Radio this morning.  The article stated that  a survey by AT&T found that more adults admit to texting while driving even when they know it’s wrong than teenagers.  The announcers repeatedly stated that adults know it to be wrong and still do it.  They implied that teenagers do not know it is wrong.  But at the end of each segment, and I heard it multiple times on my drive to work this morning, they stated that teenagers are probably lying about how much they text.  This really burns me up for, oh, so many reasons.  If we blithely stated that any other group of people were lying, people would be screaming.  Well, I’m screaming.  

Dear Director,

I was fascinated to learn that teenagers are expected to lie.  I am referring to your radio program’s report on AT&T’s poll stating that adults are more likely to text while driving than teens.  I heard this several times on my 40 minute drive to work.  I also heard at each telling, that teenagers are more likely to lie about their activities than adults.  So, I went on-line to look at the original reports.  I did not find, within the research, a caveat about how likely it was that teenagers would be lying.  I attribute this to two reasons: 1) it was not a survey about how much people lie, and 2) it was a poll with no consequences.  Teenagers would have no incentive to lie on a secret poll.

I did find that the number of teens on the road are significantly less than the number of adults on the road.  I also know, from working with teens for the past 16 years, that in stressful situations they do sometimes lie.  However, I have found that the frequency of lying among teens to be roughly similar to that of adults in general.  Perhaps I have just been fortunate in all the different schools I have worked in, but I find your tacking on that extra bit, essentially slandering my students, as supremely offensive.  And to blithely accept that I would buy that garbage speaks badly of who you are as a news media outlet.  If your broadcasters meant it as a joke, I assure you, it is not funny.  Especially on the day when we are celebrating our teens’ commitment to the “WE” program.

Shame on you, KOMO.

Thank you,

Merideth Block

I read it to my students when I was done.  They were surprised that someone would be so upset that they would write a letter defending them.  That made me even sadder.  What do we think of our teenagers?  And, more importantly, what do they think we think of them?

Week 27 – What Goes In…


As I prepare to pass the reigns to another teacher, I’m reflecting upon the literature my students and I have read over the past two years. It is interesting to look back at the readings and think about what was successful, what was just fun, and what I would like to do differently.  Some of these books we have as class sets, and so future teachers can read them, if they so desire.

Last Year:

  • selections from Aesop’s Fables +  We read this as a way to look at the structure of a fable.  Then, we wrote fables.  I use a lesson from Beat Not the Poor Desk by Marie Ponsot and Rosemary Deen to help us write them.  It is also a great way to learn how to write quotations.  Single copy.
  • selection from All Things Bright and Beautiful: “The Cow That Wouldn’t Get Up No More”, James Herriot  +  We used this as an opportunity to look at Word Choice.  Students picked words they liked and made a word wall.  Single copy.
  • Black Ships Before Troy, Rosemary Sutcliff  +  We used this in conjunction with studying Greek History.  This is an accessible version of the Iliad and the Odyssey for young people.  It does not “dumb down” the story at all.  We pair this with learning about the gods and goddesses.  It’s good for many writing assignments.  Mine. Get your own. 🙂
  • Farmer Giles of Ham, JRR Tolkien  +  We read this as our first piece of literature.  I wanted all students to have a common story from which to work.  I photocopied the piece (it’s not short 😦 ) and asked student to do notation in the margins.  We also defined words as we read using context and dictionaries.  Then I taught the writing process by guiding students through an expository essay on the story.  Mine.
  • selections from The Greek and Roman World, W.G. Hardy  +  I guess this is really History, but I wanted students to do some non-fiction reading as we were delving deep into fantasy. We paired it with Greek History. Mine.
  • From Grimm’s Grimmest, Aschenputtel, Brothers Grimm  +  Idea and Content.  We looked at three different Cinderella stories to see how they were different and how they changed over time.  Mine.
  • Motel of the Mysteries, David Macauley  +  This was a read-aloud that happened at the beginning, more for History than anything else.  It’s a funny story.  We were about to embark upon early man and Ancient Civilizations, and I used it as a cautionary tale about making inferences about ancient civilizations.  This is a great story about a man who gets it really, really wrong.  He resembles Howard Carter in a big, big way.  Student did some creative writing to wrap up.  Mine.
  • The Signal Man, Charles Dickens  +  It was close to Halloween.  What more do you need?  We tied it to Organization.  Greatest scary story — ever.  Get it from Project GutenbergThree Ghost Stories.
  • Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson  +  Read-aloud.  These are just meant to be good stories.  This book is very difficult as an independent.  Single copy.
  • The Romance of Tristan and Isolde, retold by J. Bedier  +  Read-aloud.  The students had read an expository essay on the story and decided they wanted to read it for themselves.  Mine.
  • Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare  +  A major part of our program.  Students learned poetry scansion, then wrote poetry, then read the story in class, learned about Elizabethan England, and then performed the play.  Class set.
  • Witches Abroad, Terry Pratchett  +  Pratchett is a huge part of our reading list.  Many, many students love his work, everything from Diggers, Truckers, and Wings to Feet of Clay.  Do not be afraid.  Students are in good hands if they can manage it.  The adult stuff flies right over their heads and the humor is real.  His children’s books are just as entertaining as his adult books.  Since we had been studying fairy tales, Witches Abroad was a good choice because it is a send-up of Germanic fairy tales like the ones written down by the Grimm Brothers.  Mine.
  • Where’s My Cow?  Terry Pratchett  +  Read aloud.  This book shows up in another Pratchett book that the students had been reading.  Since it was a real book, and it is really short, we gave it a read.  It is very, very funny!
  • Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak  +  This was a grammar lesson.  I asked students to take pages of the text and tell what the parts of speech were for each sentence.  Mine.
  • From The World’s Best Fairy Tales: “Cinderella”  +  Another look at the Cinderella story. Mine.
  • From Very Good, Jeeves: “Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit,” “Jeeves and the Song of Songs,” and “The Ordeal of Young Tuppy”  + Voice!  These are great stories to read for highlighting voice.  Wooster has such a clear voice that you can see him a mile away.  Once I put up a number of quotes and asked student to tell who the speaker was.  They saw Wooster right away. Mine.

This Year:

  • A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Dylan Thomas  +  I like to read this to students because I love it, but also because it is poetry, and has such wonderful imagery.  So, it works really well for Idea and Content. Mine (but you can get it from Project Gutenberg Australia).
  • selections from A History of Rome: “Greeks and Etruscans in Early Italy”, M. Cary and H.H. Scullard  +  This is heavy-duty scholarly work.  I like for students to play with non-fiction of this caliber.  It is very, very difficult, requiring the most erudite of middle school students to go to the dictionary.  When I have students tell me they know it all already, I pull text from something like this and let them go.  To scaffold it, I put them in groups, hand them a dictionary, and ask them to annotate thesis statements and topic sentences. Mine. Seriously, mine.
  • The Alchemist, Paulo Coehlo  +  This was a real risk.  I read this book to a group of 7th graders many years ago, and I was pleased by what the students got out of it.  Since we would be looking at the Muslim world later in the year, I thought I would try it again.  This book is a fable and can be understood on many different levels.  It was the first novel we read this year.  Students were each given a book to keep in which they were expected to make annotations.  Once they were done, we used the story to write our first expository paper.  The returning students from last year lead the writing of the paper, moving us on more quickly than I would have thought.  The students all loved the story.  They thought deeply about its meaning and felt a real connection to the boy.  Mine.
  • The Aeneid for Boys and Girls, Alfred J. Church  +  Do not be fooled by the archaic title.  This is a solid translation of the classic by Virgil.  (Dido is respectfully drawn.)  It is useful to pair this study with the history of Carthage.   My students really enjoyed it.  We made a map of his travels on 11 by 17 inch paper.  We also had a good time comparing it to the  youth literature books by Rick Riordan who relies heavily on the myths for his story telling.  At 110 pages, its got a lot of bang for the buck.  A class set is on the shelf.
  • “Cat on the Go!” James Herriot  +  This is a wonderful little short story.  We read it as an introduction to narrative essays.  Once we read this and one other, students wrote some lovely essays of their own.  To see four of them, flip back in the blog.  In the Literature book.
  • “Click Clack the Rattlebag”, Neil Gaiman  +  We read this through our ears.  It is a short story.  Students then wrote a suspense story of their own; examples are also on this blog.  It’s almost as good as “The Signal Man.”  Download for free (for now, at least) from (via the official Neil Gaiman Tumblr page).
  • Cuchulain of Muirthemne, Lady Gregory  +  This is another class read-aloud.  I try to do very little with these books other than just read them.  If a student makes a connection between them and the curricula, all the better, but I find that if I do anything with them, it kind of takes the joy out of it.  In this case, I’m reading this because we have looked at other epic stories, and this is one I feel gets short shrift.  It is a wonderful story even if the writing is somewhat archaic.  Through reading it to my students, I’m seeing the places where it doesn’t relate to modern, mostly American kids.  Mostly though, it does.  Mine.
  • selections from The Greek and Roman World, W.G. Hardy  + See above, except for this year we were reading the Roman section as that was what we were working on in History.  Mine.  Very hard to find.
  • From High Tide in Tucson: “The Not-So-Deadly Sin”, by Barbara Kingsolver  +  I talk a lot to my students about the fact that it is okay to lie.  Fiction means “made up.”  I love how Kingsolver explains that you need a healthy imagination in order to write fiction.  She also helps us understand that sometimes we don’t write from our experience, but rather make the lie a mental exercise.  If you can get other people to believe you, you might want to be a writer.  Don’t try this with non-fiction.  Mine.
  • The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien  +  Class read-aloud.  I put up a map from the book on the wall and students followed it.  We finished it just in time to see the first movie.  Mine.
  • selection from Metamorphoses: “Pyramus and Thisbe”, Ovid  +  So this has its fingers in English and History.  We were studying Rome while we were moving toward our school play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I wanted the students to have a sense of what Shakespeare was doing when he made the story comic.  Mine.  Project Gutenburg.
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare  +  See Twelfth Night and Ovid above.  Class set.
  • “Mighty Macedonian: Alexander the Great” from Smithsonian magazine  +  Students had already studied most of Alexander’s history when we read this article.  They compared it to the writings of other writers and found it to be full of propaganda and half-baked ideas.  They looked for topic sentences and found them lacking.  They found just what I was hoping they would find.  Mine.
  • My Path Leads to Tibet, Sabriye Tenberken  +  We are currently reading this autobiography in class.  We read each chapter and write a Reading Journal.  The students are working in small groups reading out loud to each other, looking up words, and keeping each other on task.  The reading journal requires them to give a five-sentence synopsis, show examples of the writing traits we are focusing on, and write a ten-sentence reflection.  The sentence count is only important because I want students to be concise for a summary and dig deeper for a reflection.  It’s going well.  Class set.
  • selection from Yarn Harlot: “The Beast”, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee  +  I paired this with “Cat on the Go!” as an example of the narrative essay.  You can argue that this is really a humorous essay, but honestly, it fits the format for narrative essay; it just happens to be funny.  It’s one of my favorite essays – ever.  Mine.

So, if I think if anything I missed, I’ll add it.

Week 26 – Studying Ancient Arabian History


Hmm.  Sounds different than saying, “We’re studying Islamic Empires,” doesn’t it?

This is not my favorite unit to teach, which is such a shame because it is one of my favorite units to teach.  The reason why it is not my favorite is because I spend a lot of time swimming upstream against “The Middle East”.  (In my mind, the there was a “Dun-dun-duuunnn” sound effect in my head.)  I don’t teach modern history, thank goodness.  I wouldn’t have the patience for it.  Ancient atrocities and general bad behavior are fun.  Modern ones? Not so much.

To some extent I feel like I’m teaching German history in the middle of World War II.  This analogy is totally inaccurate and yet totally correct.  Students can come in with so much trash in their heads about what it means to be Muslim, with little to no respect for the culture’s history, and with offensive epithets ready to spit out at a moment’s notice, most of which they learned from Facebook and Fox News.  Islam is the new “bad guy.”  (I feel like I need a shower to get the yuck off just from writing that.)

You have to put your foot down on that crap from the get-go.  I tell them that I love people.  When you love people, you do not disparage them.  I have friends who are Christan, Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, Zen Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Shinto, you name it.  I have taught Iranian, Iraqi, Israeli, Palestinian, Saudi, and Yemenite children. I have never taught a “bad child” yet.  I tell my students that I will go to the mat to protect those children just the same as I will go to the mat to protect the ones sitting with me right now. I will not allow those people to be generalized into one group of “bad people”.  It stops at the door.  So once all the students are clear on the rules, we can start with the lessons.

The next thing I tell them is that, as a historian of ancient civilizations and societies, I base all of my curricula on texts from both historians and archaeologists.  I do not make up information or make inferences.  I try hard to keep my bias as a modern reader of the news media from coloring my reading of historical sources, so that what is happening today does not interfere with or obscure my understanding of what was happening 1,500 years ago. I bring in the texts that I have studied and show the students what I thought was reliable and what was dubious. (I’ve been doing this all year, but it is really important here.)  If a reliable text does not give me an answer, I put that question in my “unanswered” box and keep looking for research that can answer my question.

In this way, I show my students how I can move from Theology to History and back again.  A historian of ancient civilizations must be familiar with the theological tenets and with the traditional stories of the culture they are studying, but scholars call those concepts “History” at their peril.  (I’m talking to you — you people who believe Julius Caesar was writing history and not propaganda. So why am I picking on the Romans? For the Romans, their all-encompassing belief that they were the best, and deserved to be the best, essentially was a religion, a theology of sorts. So a historian has to be able to separate the propaganda that Julius Caesar wrote in his role as a political historian from the rest of the historical record that shows how he was busy knocking over the Celts for their gold.)

I think it is of supreme importance to begin with Pre-Islamic Arabian societies, and I look to Karen Armstrong to help me here.  Her book, Muhammad, is very, very useful.  I distilled it into a PowerPoint presentation that teaches students words like badawah, ghazu, muruwah, asibiyyah, karim, and hajj.  (If you want to know what these terms mean, go look them up.  You might learn something.) These words help my students begin to understand that the ancient Arabian culture was very different from anything we have studied before.  Also, having those terms helps them feel less lost.  When students feel less lost, they feel less scared, and less threatened.  It also helps them be better prepared to understand who Muhammad was and how he changed the landscape of what is now the Middle East.

If you feel that you don’t know that much about Islam, I suggest this: The 72 Virgins Are A Lie (And Other Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Islam).  It’s by Seth Green, it’s short, and it does a nice job of giving you a quick, entertaining lesson from a fellow nerd.

Long live nerdy historians!

Week 26 – Reading Journals


Former students across the length of the west coast are groaning and rolling their eyes about now.  I totally understand why.  Although reading journals are wonderful tools to help students prove that they have read the material, they can be a complete drag.  In my world, there are three parts to the reading journal: 1) writing a synopsis of what was read, 2) looking at the writing through the lens of the 6+1 writing traits, and 3) reflecting on what was read.

Students often love (okay, okay… like) to do either the synopsis or the reflection.  Very few students enjoy doing both.  I ask for five sentences for the synopsis and around 10 for the reflection.  I ask that students take no more than 20 minutes for the whole process.  It is interesting to watch students struggle with either writing too little for the synopsis or writing too much.  The student who packs every idea into two sentences struggles, and the student who wants to continue writing on the back of the page struggles.  Getting them to practice sequencing and pacing can be difficult.

For those who like the reflection part, they also struggle with saying enough, but there is more wiggle room because they can list their thoughts as they read, they can write questions for the author, or even write a poem.  Some students list the words they learned and the definition.  To be honest, the reflections are my favorite parts to read.  Often, I read them out loud to the students to try to help them see what others thought.  It can sometimes lead to great discussions on the text.

The middle section is the part where I’m trying to get students to think about the traits of strong writing.  At first, I tell them which trait they need to consider.  Later on they can choose between Idea and Content, Organization, Word Choice, or Voice. Right now, students have rubrics for Idea and Content and Organization which I encourage them to use as a reference.

I have had more luck with reading journals than I have had with Literature Circles.  I tried those three years ago with some very competent students and I felt like it was a waste of time.  But then I also feel that dioramas and cubes where kids write an idea on each side of the cube is a waste of time.  I have a habit of trying to pack an assignment as full as I can because I want them to work.

Students are just now finishing up their first reading journals.  I have said at least five times that they need at least five sentences for their synopsis, and there is plenty to say about the chapter.  Yet, student after student has approached the desk with two and three sentence synopses.  I scan their work and hand the paper right back.  I also ask them to check their grammar and mechanics if it looks like they are forgetting things.

The first crack at reading journals is always difficult, and I often have to remind myself that with time and practice they will start to realize that reading is not just about what you take in, but also what you get out of reading.

Week 26- Diving into Technology Pool B


To recap, last week I recounted a story of how I needed a dose of emergency chocolate in order to survive a technology encounter with students.  Believe it or not, the week got worse on the technology front.  Once we fix the problem, it will officially be funny, and then I will tell it.  I’m hoping for tomorrow.  That was Pool A, where all students bring their own technology to class.

Today I will dissect the issue of Pool B, which is a common conundrum for small schools, i.e., all students are given the technology that the school wants them to have in the classroom.

Important note for readers: I’ve never taught at a school where this has happened.  However, the reason why I am a competent teacher is because I can see many of the ways a plan can go wrong before I start it.  This allows me to fix problems before they happen.  Due to all of the concerns I have, I would ask a school to think long and hard before going down the “let’s get them all the same computer” route.

Here is the scenario which is often presented to schools:  A family or a group of parents or a business offers to purchase computers for students.  I have never known this gesture to come from any place but kindness, but here are the issues with this.  I see these issues coming down the pipe because I’ve dealt with variations of all of them.

  1. Does the school have an idea of what type of technology really makes sense?  Do we want PCs? or Macs? or tablets?  Are our heads turned by the fact that we have a major computer company in our backyard?  (Before anyone points fingers, I did live in Silicon Valley, twice.)  Do we want the computers to be able to connect to the internet? Do we want to require that all students use Word or Pages or OpenOffice?  Or do we want to give them all email addresses and require them to use Google Drive?  Do we limit internet access to specific sites, or allow students access to all internet sites?  How do we know what is best for our students?
  2. Does the school have a staff member who is really computer-competent?  It means having a person around at all times who can fix issues as they come up during the day.  And they will come up.  Should a pornographic gif magically show up on a student’s computer and the computer belongs to the child’s family, you shut the lid, call the parents, and send the computer home.  If the computer belongs to the school, you need someone who can get rid of the image, quick.  If a teacher accidentally erases the internet browser, you need someone who knows how to figure out how to get it back on.  You need someone who won’t decide to rip a massive hole in the wall of your classroom to get at the wires because the connection between your LCD projector and your computer gives you a green screen, when ultimately the only problem was that the connection cable had one too many pins.  You need a person who can put Wi-Fi up properly so that you don’t have to go into the darkroom when you are allergic to photo chemicals because the internet goes out every thirty minutes and you are trying to use a documentary on Netflix.  (Take out the router power cord. Wait for a minute.  Plug power back in.  Watch all the pretty lights blink.  Use inhaler.  Go back to the class and ask if the documentary started again.  I’m fairly certain I lost a significant amount of class-time which I’d like to take out of our tech guy’s hide.)  I could go on.  And on.  And on.
  3. Does the school have the correct infrastructure?  A few anecdotes: at one school, I had one working “drop” in my classroom even though the room looked like it had three.  When I told this to the school’s superintendent, he looked at me and said, “What’s a drop?”  (Drops were what we used to call the network ports where we hooked our computers up to the interweb-thingy.) At the same time as I was struggling to get network access (just for me, not even for students), every desk at the district office had brand-new flat-screen computer monitors. At more than one school, I brought in an LCD projector and had hoses for electricity sprawled across my floor just waiting to trip someone.
  4. Does the internet even work? See above.  But I digress.
  5. When it comes to the school providing computers for each student, infrastructure is about boundaries.  How possible is it for the students to get into the school’s data?  Hacking happens.  Sometimes just for the fun of it. Are students allowed to stream video?  Are they allowed to back up their computers, or do you need someone to back up for them?  What about installation privileges?  If students are allowed to install software, the likelihood of them encountering a virus or a trojan or whatever skyrockets.  Can your tech person handle it?   Who owns what is on students’ computers, and what happens if they do something illegal with it?  Who is liable?  And don’t get me started on students downloading video games, which can then fill up available memory or otherwise make the machine unusable.
  6. The school would need to foot the bill for any software students might need.  For a small private school, the cost of licensing software is not inconsiderable.  And upgrades can also be expensive.  Can they afford it?
  7. Tech classes.  So, the school owns all of these computers, and naturally enough, it wants them to last. This means you need to teach your students how to take care of them.  Where do you fit this in a schedule that’s already packed tight?  I honestly do think that students need to have tech classes just to teach them how incredibly unsafe the world of the internet is.  What with identity theft and predators, it’s scary just for me to be on.
  8. What happens when computers get broken, or lost, or stolen?  Because they will.  Will the family be expected to pay to replace it?  What if that family is on assistance and can’t afford it? What if that model of computer is no longer available, and the only ones that are available have compatibility issues with all the other computers?

So, that’s just me brainstorming.  Any school who thinks that a gift of computers is not fraught with issues is kidding themselves.  I’m not saying a school shouldn’t do it, but they need to have a plan for how to manage it.

I’d like to go into Pool C, which is where the school would require that all parents purchase computers for their children that are all the same make, but I don’t need to post those ideas.  Just pour the dirty water from Pool A into Pool B and splash around a bit.  You’ll see the concerns without my help.  Just don’t clog the filters.

Week 25- Technology SNAFU, Part 1


The next person who tells me that technology is the savior of education is risking a big fat dictionary aimed straight at his head.  Inevitably, this person is not in the classroom and yet, seems to think, they can make education better by chucking a laptop at each student.  They certainly haven’t been in my shoes over the past 16 years.  And the shenanigans that happened this morning would make any thinking person cringe.

There are the two main swimming pools of various bacteria and diseases that I see clouding up the issue of technology in the classroom.  I’ll stick to Pool A in this here post.

Pool A is an environment where every student has their own computer-like item (laptop, surface, tablet, whatever).  It makes sense.  The logic is simple: my household is predominantly Mac-born, I would want my child to have a Mac because I know how to use it.  Same goes for PCs.  Or, let’s say, in this Windows saturated Puget Sound, the newest Windows product.  This simple thought leads to hours and hours of wasted time in the classroom because everybody’s system is different.  I, personally, am fluent with five different word processing programs because of it.  Word, Pages, Google Drive, Open Office, Text Edit, and one other that I know the picture for but can’t remember what it’s called.  Oops, that’s six.

I have learned through trial and error that if I use my USB stick to move a file from the school’s Mac Mini to my MacBook Pro, the school’s photocopier, connected by wireless internet, won’t recognize it if at any point it had been in Pages (Mac’s answer to Word).  Why? I don’t know! Third Base!

So here is what happened this morning… Actually, we have to step back two days.  On Tuesday students were given the assignment of going through the notes they had taken in History class to make questions for the game we would be playing in preparation for a test.  (Cornell Notes are handwritten– always.)  I timed the three groups while they were making a decision about how best to gather the materials they needed.  Two of the three groups only had one computer among the members, and so they decided to have the fastest typist type the notes while the others gathered questions.

I love it when they take control like this.  And I love it that they want to use their computers.  It is much, much easier to make one document by cutting and pasting their questions and answers, than to re-type their handwritten questions into my computer.  Still, if nobody had brought their computer that day, and they needed to hand write them, that would be fine, too.

The final group to finish all had their computers.  All three had different types of computers: one Surface, one Macbook, and something I don’t recognize but it falls in the Windows Tablet market.  They all had different writing programs.  They wanted to split the work up and then collate their questions, but they couldn’t do it because their systems didn’t work together easily.  They finally decided to have one student type on his computer.   This discussion took 10 minutes by my clock.  Now, this may not seem like much to you, but any teacher knows that 10 minutes is a lifetime.  The group was significantly behind the others.

The next day, when they sat down to work, they discovered that the computer in question had been left at home.  All of their work had been on it.  The natural consequence was for the students to start over because I needed their work that night so I could put review their questions before I used them as a game.  They chose another member of the group to type on his computer.  At the end of class, I handed each group my USB stick to put their work on.  Two of the three groups did this flawlessly.  The third group, predictably by now, had trouble.  The typist told me that the USB stick didn’t work with his new device.  I was trying to get the class wrapped up and out the door, and so I foolishly believed him when he said he would email it to me.  He didn’t.

When he came in this morning I asked him to bring me his computer.  Fortunately, he had it with him.  I asked him where the USB port was.  And here is one of the biggest problems with technology: education.  A lot of my time in English and History class is spent teaching my students technology.  It amazes me that we assume that students come in knowing what a USB stick, or thumb drive, is.  They don’t know how to add an attachment, double space their work, or add a header to their papers. Some don’t even know if they have an email account.  Sure, some students are so technologically savvy that we worry, but my experience is that students have great knowledge of computer games, but not of how to use the machine for work.

It makes some sense not to have “computers class” like I had when I was their age.  Again, (if you read my last post) it’s about authenticity.  I had a great professor of Library Studies at my college named Evan Farber, and he as adamant about the fact that students learn when they need something.  Still, I sometimes think that taking time to make sure that we all have similar knowledge cuts down on frustration and general faffing about.  We would need curricula and a teacher and more time in the day.

So, I nailed the student to the wall about his knowledge of his computer.  I discovered that he was so embarrassed about not knowing how to use it that he chose to tell me that my USB was the wrong size rather than asking if he had the right port and if it was the right way up.  He also told me that he had emailed me a document, but there was no document in my inbox.  He told me I was wrong.  I looked again at my inbox.  Nope.  Then, I discovered that he did not know how to email.  I also discovered that he had deleted the classwork when he cut and pasted his work into an email document that he could not now find.  He was ready to give up at every turn.

So, I asked him to call up the original document that the group had worked on yesterday.  He showed me a document which had clearly been cut from.  I asked him to use control Z to undo his work.  He told me that he had already hit the “undo” button.  I said, “use control Z.” Amazingly, all the work from yesterday magically appeared on the document.  At this point, the rest of class was busily quizzing each other on the Barbarians connected with Rome, but I was reminding myself to breathe because I understand that infanticide is wrong.

So, I taught the student where his USB port was, I taught him how to put a document on it, and how to eject it. I taught him how to cut and paste without loosing his document.  I taught him to ask for help instead of simply assume that I will buy the fact that a USB stick is the wrong size.  What I taught the rest of the class was that if someone has computer issues, they get to faff about for half an hour while we try to fix it.

I finally got all the documents together and was able to check them.  So, except for the time lost, it isn’t a tragedy.  I might have lost a few years from my life, but that’s what we teachers sacrifice.

You may be wondering if I am trying to make a case for the school requiring everyone to have the same equipment.  Reading this, I would think that.  But that is Pool B into which we will dive later.  Bring your nose plug and goggles.

Week 25- “Grammaring” with the Goddesses


Somebody please help me find the research (and I know it’s out there) which states that worksheets do not transfer grammatical knowledge to students.  I’ll give you a cookie.  (This is why I can’t wait to get into a doctoral program.  I will finally have time to find the research or do it myself.)  Research or no, I’ve seen where students are given a rule and then are expected to practice it.  Yet the knowledge goes no further than the recycle bin that they all drop the worksheet in once they’ve scanned it for their grade.  Ask students to write a sentence or a paragraph and the rule goes right out the window.

Think about what goes into writing a paragraph.  Let’s take one of my students, sitting at her desk, as an example.  She needs to be able to concentrate.  She needs her writing journal.  She needs a writing implement.  She needs to know how to write. (Stay with me.  All of this really does count.  If you have ever tried to work with a student who doesn’t have one of the above, you aren’t going to get very far writing a paragraph.) She needs an idea.  She needs to be able to transfer what is in her brain to her paper.  She needs to communicate the idea in a way that helps others understand.  She picks up her pencil and writes something.  Did you see thinks about all the grammar rules she has ever learned and applies them to her idea in there?  It was in the “communicates idea” sentence.   She sure didn’t.  And she didn’t stop to think to herself, “Hmm.  It’s the beginning of a sentence; I need to capitalize.”  Nobody does that.

Furthermore, grammar knowledge varies wildly from student from student.  Some will be very adept; many will not.  To ask all students to do worksheet after worksheet when they already know the material just seems really dumb to me.  I want a program that is specific to the needs of the learner.

Grammar rules in action need to happen by rote.  Automatically, like flushing the toilet.  (If you are raising your hand to argue about whether flushing the toilet is automatic, go stand in the corner.) Which is why worksheets are so seductive.  It looks like you’re asking students to grind in one point so that it’s ingrained.  But when one sentence out of 100 has a noun clause, the rule learned by that worksheet is unlikely to be remembered when it is written authentically.  (Let’s not get into the question of how in-authentic schools are right now.  Let’s save it for another day.)   In previous posts, I have waxed rhapsodic on the merits of English 2600, but I’ll be honest, if practice has not been coupled with it, the textbook is little better than worksheets.  (Maybe a little better, but not much.)  So, how do you make the practice authentic?

Let me start out right now by admitting I’ve never even tried the “writing applications” that comes with the new edition of both 2600 and 3200.  They struck me as not really useful, but I’m willing to be proven wrong.

I lucked into a conference where the Grammar Goddesses were presenting.  (I can’t seem to make the link to their website work, but I’ll have my tech support, i.e. husband, help me later.)  Instead of editing student work with the tradition editing symbols, they give students codes at the error which reflect the grammar mistakes their students made.  Students then write out a list of the codes, write the rules correctly, and then fix their mistake on the next draft.  It’s brilliant. It dove-tails nicely with English 2600 because, well, it would.  It’s all the language of English. 

They also made an important point.  Don’t write on a paper that students are not going to revise.  Students look at a grade and toss it away.  If you are going to take the time to give feedback, make it worth their time.  This is where authentic practice comes in to play.  Students are already writing for you.  Whether they be writing a sentence or a paragraph or a 20-page paper, if they are turning it in for a grade, that is the time to have them make a Personal Skills Record (PSR).

Here’s how it works in my class: students write something I am going to edit.  They hand it to me.  I take a pen and write codes like “sp” for spelling or “comma-sub. clause” for a comma error when it has to do with a subordinate clause at the place the error happened.  I do this for every error I catch.  I hand the paper back.  Students take a new piece of paper and write down the codes I gave them and the grammar rule off of a Code Sheet that they keep in their writing tools.  Then they fix their paper.  They turn in the edited draft, the PSR, and the next draft all at the same time.  I need the original document to see where the errors were, I need the PSR to see that they studied the grammar rules they broke, and the final draft to give them an A on their paper.  The next time they know they need to turn in a paper for me to edit, they check their PSR to see what mistakes they made last time.

Somewhere I lost the book that I bought at the conference explaining how to do this in better detail.  As I looked at the Grammar Goddesses’ website today, I didn’t recognize the titles, but since they wrote it, I’m sure they would know what I’m talking about.  They struck me as very nice ladies. I’m sure you could contact them for specifics.  Or, you could ask me, too.

Over the years, I have tweaked the code sheet for the grammatical needs of each class.  Instead of asking students to write the rule every time they made the mistake, I ask them to tally up the number, so that they know how often they made it.  Sometimes, I ask students to look at the codes they garnered and choose one or two that everyone (or almost everyone) needs a lesson on.  As students move through the grammar program,  they see it play out in their own writing.  By the end of the year, students pride themselves on having fewer and fewer errors.  The grammar rules really do become a habit.  But be warned.  Like any habit, if your school falls out of making it a priority, your students will stop doing it.  We can’t assume that because students were taught appositives in 5th grade that they will still be using them correctly in 9th unless all of their teachers hold them accountable to the rule.

So, there it is, my long-winded description of how I try to make grammar authentic for my students.  There are other things I do, but I think the marriage of a strong grammar program and an opportunity to practice with real work does more to cement grammatical ability than anything else I’ve seen.