Have you joined The English Companion Ning? It's a great source for meeting teachers, sharing strategies, and seeking help from other teachers.
Have you joined The English Companion Ning? It's a great source for meeting teachers, sharing strategies, and seeking help from other teachers.
“Second home” and “family” are terms that teachers often use to describe the schools where they teach and the teachers with whom they teach. Whereas most students stay in a high school for four years, teachers may remain there for over a decade. In time, camaraderie develops among teachers, and it’s those long-term special relationships that often redirect teachers when they are struggling, rejuvenate teachers when they are declining, and bolster teachers when they are weighed down with problems outside of school. We have all experienced those moments when another teacher stepped in to rescue us when we were depressed, frustrated, or at a loss for what to do next, and in turn we all have reached out to help our peers when they were in trouble.
Sometimes teachers who have worked together for a long time help each other by simply providing a different perspective on students, traditions, assignments, and school plans.
Years ago I worked in a small high school where many of the teachers had worked together for many years. Like family members, we were each other’s biggest supporters and biggest critics. At the beginning of each school year we all took great pride in decorating our rooms to make them colorful and inviting for students who would enter our classrooms. Gaile, the well-loved Social Studies Department Chair and Psychology teacher, invited a group of us into her room to see a new poster of Sigmund Freud she had just hung.
When we looked at Freud, some of us laughed, others gasped, and one or two said, “Are
you really going to display that in your classroom?”
Squabbles break out even in the best of families, and Gaile truly did not understand why
anyone would have a problem with her poster. After all, she taught Psychology; what
could be wrong with a poster of Sigmund Freud? Finally, another teacher walked over and traced over the poster to show that although no one would have trouble with the profile of Freud, the rest of the poster might be exceedingly entertaining to teenagers.
I’ll pause here and let you view the poster at AllPosters.com
If you are perplexed, disheartened, frustrated, or simply worn out from the excessive duties teachers must complete on a daily basis, ask for help from other teachers. Often they can provide encouragement, tips, and even commiseration.
Sometimes you just might need to view your situation from a different perspective.
And, if you are thinking about decorating your classroom, the Freud poster is still
available for $8.99.
I am what I learn.
The U.S. Department of Education is hosting a video contest for students. The contest is open to students 13 and over who make a short video (no more than 2 minutes) about the importance of education. It looks like an interesting assignment for kids.
My AP English classes just finished reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a marvelous book about
the 1959 murder of four members of the Clutter family in
and I look forward to teaching it because Capote develops the story more like a
novel instead of a nonfiction account. We have fascinating discussions about
the two murderers and the nature vs. nurture debate and how it plays out in
this book. Since AP English Language mainly focuses on nonfiction, I always
assign In Cold Blood early in the semester
when students think the works we will read will be boring. In Cold Blood is an outstanding book that sucks in the reader and
makes him feel that he is right there when the murders take place, and that’s
Over the years I have encountered students who like the
book, but they are so afraid while they read it that they don’t want to sleep
alone or go outside after dark. One young man this semester awakened in the
middle of the night when he heard some noise in the den and ended up tackling
his mother who had come downstairs to check on something!
In a time when many books and movies are so graphic, it’s a
testament to Capote’s craft as a writer that he is able to create such a
haunting setting without being graphic. However, I often wonder what I should
do with students who really are afraid as they read.
Am I wrong to assign
the book when I know a handful of students will become spooked?
Through the years I have tried to accommodate students by
warning them when they will read scary parts for homework. If they are
extremely afraid, I even mark their books and tell them to skip pages that are
more graphic or disturbing. I rarely have to do this, but when I do, students always appreciate
it. Sometimes, however, I just feel guilty for making a few kids squirm. Yes, I
know that good literature is often unsettling, but I still feel guilty. In the
past I used to console students by telling them that the murder of a family by
strangers is such a rare event that they have a better chance of winning the
lottery and emphasized that it was much more common for family members to
murder other family members. “So, if you aren’t worried about someone in your
family killing you, you don’t need to be worried,” I often announced in a
I stopped making that statement last spring, however, when the
mother of one of my former students was killed by her ex-husband.
In the end, I know that In
Cold Blood works well with my students, and I shouldn’t worry so much about
one or two students who feel squeamish a few days during our reading, but I
Worrying about how students react to In Cold Blood always reminds me of a story I read a few years ago
in George Plimpton’s Truman Capote: In Which
Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent
Career (1997). Plimpton tells of a time when a
group of high school seniors. During class one day, one of the young men became
visibly upset, threw his book in the floor, and ran to the guidance office. It
seems that while reading the book “he had got to putting two and two
together” and ascertained that Dick Hickock was his father (194)! The boy’s
mother had remarried when he was a baby and changed the boy’s name. What a horrible experience for the young man.
I also worry about that teacher. I bet that was the last
time she taught In Cold Blood!
In the end, I guess we all do the best we can to put
excellent works of literature in the hands of our students and help them grapple
with the large themes of life
. . . even if they
have to sleep with the lights on!
"The researchers calculate that cutting a school’s TSL from a mean of 115 students to 80 translates to a 16 percentage-point increase in the rate of students scoring “proficient” on state exams."
Hallelujah! Although any K-12 teacher could have told William Ouchi that our kids would learn more if we decreased the TSL (Total Student Load), at least someone with the data to prove it is now speaking out. The questions, however, are will anyone listen, and, if so, do we have the money to reduce student loads? I just ordered Ouchi's book and look forward to reading what else he found that would increase student achievement.
Friday night I was rather disheartened as I looked at the
statistics of how many people accessed this blog during the day. Rather than
looking at the statistics objectively and accepting that I’m off to a decent
start for a blog that is only a little over a week old, I started wondering
whether anyone was truly reading it and whether or not I was wasting my time
writing posts that no one will ever read.
Later that night a Florida teacher who consults my course
website and now follows this blog sent me an email to thank me. She included
the statement: “I was desperately searching for information to help me become a
better teacher. What I found was you (and your infinite wisdom).” A simple
email from someone I have never met rejuvenated me. It may be tiny, but I have
an audience, and that gives me a purpose for writing. (Thanks, Sarah!)
gray-haired teacher a step away from retirement needs an audience, how much
more important must an audience be for teenage writers?
all know that if we want our students to improve in writing, we have to afford
them opportunities to share their work with someone other than teachers. Yes,
most of them want to make good grades, but those true strokes of inspiration
and those moments when students really want to write appear after they receive
the attention and acclaim from their peers.
How do we
provide an audience for our students?
younger students it may be sufficient to post exemplary work on bulletin
boards. For older students who write longer papers, however, this may be insufficient.
A simple method I use is to invite students to read their papers aloud to the
class. My students usually sit in a circle, and this makes the perfect setting
for reading aloud. (Believe it or not, I can get as many as 32 desks in a
circle and can put volunteers in the floor if I have more students.) Depending
on the assignment, I may have only three or four students to as many as twenty
or more students who want to share their papers. When each student finishes, we applaud, and
some students make positive comments or ask questions about the paper.
the years I have been amazed at how much such a simple act means to students.
Even years after students leave my classroom, some of them will send me emails
and tell me that they never really liked writing or thought they were good at
it until they read a paper aloud and had other students congratulate them. For
students who like to write humorous papers, nothing is better than reading a
paper aloud and hearing the laughter that their papers generate.
the students who benefit the most from reading their papers to other students
are struggling writers. A couple of years ago a student read aloud a beautiful
paper about his mother. The paper expressed his love for his mother as he had
to care for her during a long illness and his thankfulness when she recovered.
When he finished the paper, students applauded and, clearly touched by the
student’s poignant essay, several students conveyed their admiration for how he
had handled such a challenging situation. The young man was visibly pleased by
the kind remarks of his classmates. When I later graded the paper and realized
that it was riddled with mechanical errors that I would need to teach him to
correct, I knew he would be willing to revise because he knew that my
suggestions would make his paper even better.
exemplary student papers on class websites (with permission from parents and
students) is also an effective way to publish a student’s work and provide a
larger audience. After I post papers,
students always remark on how their grandparents or aunts and uncles in other
states downloaded their papers to read.
magazines or handouts of student writing, school literary magazines, special
student readings for Parents’ Night, submission of work to online blogs, and
even audio and video productions of student essays are excellent ways to
provide students with a wider audience for their writing. We just need to think
of creative ways to spotlight student writing. If you have other ideas for ways
to publish student work or to create a larger audience for their work, please
share your ideas in the comments section.
Today's Education News posts an interesting article about how student scores climb when all teachers accept the challenge to include writing in their courses. Too often teachers in areas outside English Departments do not understand that English teachers can only teach the basic writing skills students need in other subject areas. Consequently, teachers outside English Departments must teach students how to apply those skills in assignments specifically targeted to math, science, technology, etc.
Whereas most English teachers are reticent to teach scientific or technological writing because they believe it is beyond their areas of expertise, teachers in other subject areas are also often reticent to incorporate writing because they believe they are unqualified to teach writing. I like this school's collegial approach that brings teachers together to discuss what they want their students to be able to do as well as how to grade the assignments. In the end, teachers feel good about what they are doing, and students benefit.
If you want to create free motivational or classroom graphics, take a look at Tuxpi.com. Users can very quickly upload an image and create wanted posters, postage stamps, motivational posters, newscast photos. etc. It's so easy that you can give the link to students and tell them to create a project based on a literary character or another classroom concept.
Best of all, it's FREE!
A few weeks ago I made an appointment with a counselor to help
me get over my phobia of bridges. In spite of my embarrassment and reluctance
to participate, she made me tap my face and say, “I’m afraid of bridges, but I still
love myself.” I felt foolish, but I have to admit that it seemed to ease my
anxiety or at least distracted me as I looked around the room in search of a
hidden camera. As you sit at your desk surrounded by clutter and feel anxious
at the mere thought of trying to organize it, perhaps you might want to start
by tapping your face and saying,
“My desk is a mess, but I still love myself!”
If you don’t have stacks of papers all over your desk, your
chair, and/or your table, this blog is not for you. Just smile and thank the
good Lord you don’t have to worry about such problems and come back tomorrow
when the topic may be more pertinent to you. Or, better yet, skip to the bottom
of this post, click on Comments, and give me directions for organizing the
drawers of my desk. I still can’t figure out how to bring order to pens,
post-it notes, cards, paper clips, and all those extras that I am convinced
breed inside my desk drawers!
For now, let’s start with something really simple for
teachers who are drowning in clutter.
Promise yourself that
you will clean off your desk in the next 7 days.
You don’t have to do this immediately or all at once. Take
your time. You are NOT allowed to scrape
everything into your filing cabinet drawers, desk drawers, or box that you
shove inside the closet. You get the idea. Here’s how I would weed through the
1. Label a file folder for each period you teach, each
course you teach, your homeroom/advisement, and for each extra-curricular
activity, club, or sport you supervise. Label folders for department, school
forms, staff development, and personal. Find a different color folder and label
it “To Do” or a similar title. If you want to color-code your folders, do so. Place
the folders in a box so you have a temporary filing system.
2. Go through the stacks of papers on your desk. For
each paper, ask yourself first, “Do I
really need to keep this form, paper, or handout?” Many of the papers that have been stacked on
your desk for weeks may simply be thrown away. Do you really need to keep a
copy of a handout that is saved on your computer? If so, place the paper in the correct folder.
If you have papers to be graded, put them in the appropriate class period
folder. If the papers pertain to the course, put them there. If you find you
have something that doesn’t fit in one of your labeled folders, make a new
folder and label it. Do not throw everything in one huge folder that you label “Miscellaneous”
because you will simply create folder clutter.
3. If you have a form that you must complete, place
it in the colored “To Do” folder
4. 4. Don’t
forget the garbage can! Keep asking
yourself, “Do I really need to keep
5. When you have placed all of your papers in
folders, move the personal folder to
your bag to take home. Place the colored “To
Do” folder on your desk and allow it to stay there all year. Place your
class period folders on your desk or in a drawer of your desk. Now you have all
of the papers you need to grade in one place. After you grade papers, keep them
in the class period folder so you can find them quickly for class distribution.
In fact, you can assign students the task of checking the folder each class
period and passing out graded papers.
6. Place all of the other folders in your filing
cabinet (or keep them in the filing box) until we move on to organizing the
filing cabinet a week from now.
You have one week to clean off your desk. If you are a quick
learner and ready for accelerated study, move on to cleaning off other areas of
If you feel anxious, repeat after me:
“My desk is a mess, but I still love
And start cleaning! You’ll feel so much better when your
desk is clean. It’s painful work, but it’s not like you have to cross a bridge.
When I first started teaching years ago, my organizational
skills were so poor that I probably spent as much time trying to find things as
I spent preparing lessons. When I cleaned my desk, a rare event, I simply raked
all of the stacks of papers off my desk and into a filing cabinet drawer, any
filing cabinet drawer, because one drawer was just as good as any another. When
I filled up one filing cabinet, I asked for another one. Since I was so
disorganized, I never threw away anything because I was so afraid that one day
I might need it. I take that back. When I ran across a stack of ungraded homework
papers that were dated over 2 months before, I tossed them.
I lived amidst clutter in those days: ungraded papers,
graded papers not yet recorded, make-up work, stacks of handouts distributed
weeks before, phone notes (We didn’t have email in those days.), lesson plans, parent
notes, homework, forms to be completed,
forms half completed, forms due weeks before, paycheck stubs, staff development
forms, homeroom forms, attendance forms, forms, forms, forms.
When I returned graded papers to students, inevitably a
student would chime, “Where’s my paper?” and I would have to give the student
credit for the assignment because I knew I had lost papers on my desk, in the
stack of papers on my chair, in my car, or on my desk at home. Sometimes I
suspected that kids had never turned in the work in the first place, but who
was I to challenge them since I never could find all my papers?
I lived amidst clutter.
As much as I hate to admit it today, I truly had no idea how
to organize anything, and I actually believed that I was just fine in my
disorganized state. Besides, creative minds always struggle with organization,
right? I wasn’t disorganized; I was just creative, I often claimed in a feeble
attempt to turn a weakness into an attribute.
Besides, I worked long, long hours, and I didn’t have time
It wasn’t until my seventh year as a classroom teacher when
I transferred from a middle school to a high school and had the chance to start
over in a new classroom that I learned to organize myself. As I became
organized, I realized that I didn’t have to work as many hours.
I was happier and more productive.
More students turned in their work on time, and fewer
claimed that I had lost their work.
I no longer worried over all those forms I couldn’t find or
complete on time.
If I had the chance to design a new required course that
teachers would have to complete before achieving certification, I would call it
Teacher Organization 101. I am convinced that organized teachers are happier,
more productive, and more successful.
Since I just started this blog, I have no idea who will read
it and whether or not they might need organizational tips as I did when I first
started teaching, but part of what determines the topics I include on this blog
are tips, suggestions, and information that I wish someone would have shared
with me years ago, and I desperately needed organizational help. Who could
provide better advice to disorganized teachers than a reformed clutterer? (Yes,
I know “clutterer” is not a real word, but it fits my previous state of
disorder.)Today I am an extremely organized person, proof that reform is
I will entitle future blogs that deal with organization “Teacher Organization 101.” If you need
help with organization or want to learn new tips, I hope you will find these posts
useful. In fact, I hope you will
actually comment on these posts and give me topics to address.
If you have mastered organization, you’ll know that these
posts may not be useful for you.
Tomorrow let’s tackle the clutter on a teacher’s desk!