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On Writing, Raw and Slow-roasted

star5112 Balancing or falling? CC BY-SA 2.0

A couple months ago, I met with a writer friend of mine for some advice about re-stepping into the freelance world. “I wouldn’t blog,” he said, in the form of a question mark, after a brief hesitation. I was asking him about the dilemma I encountered freelancing a couple years ago:

On the one hand, your blog tends to get the bottom pile, backlog version of your best ideas, which are saved for (potential) paid publication; on the other hand, after querying and researching and syncing your words with whatever brand you’re lucky enough to land that month/day/week, it’s like coming up for air to write whatever the hell you please for friends, or at least, friendly, generous readers who have formed a little community around your site.

On the one hand, blogging is something of a distraction from bigger projects that involve more risk and revision, requiring more gestation to discover what they actually are — I’m thinking of the collection of short stories I’ve decided to start for which this blog post, in part, is a thinly veiled form of procrastination.

Then again, there’s something life-giving and soul-soothing, and less narcissistic than Facebook, I think, about being able to scroll through your past reflections when you’re feeling down or disillusioned. In its simplest form, a blog is a record of experiences — like all writing, a confirmation that this “one wild, precious life” of which the poet Mary Oliver speaks is being lived with a measure of meaning.

If you’re still reading, thanks for putting up with all this navel-gazing about blogs. It’s part of a larger conversation I’m having with fellow teachers/writers about the role we want writing to have in our lives. I think it’s a conversation about focus, and meaning. It’s a conversation I find myself having with my husband, too, about where he wants to go with his passions for Irish fiddle and writing poetry, and what does it mean exactly to develop your passion? As I explained to my colleague at the brunch I blogged about last week, I’m realizing that freelancing for magazines here and there is edifying (hah) and fulfilling, in its own way, and I plan to continue that, but I’m finding that I crave a bigger project, one that’s born out of a desire to write for writing’s sake, whether or not the writing is published or paid for.

Which brings me to roasted vegetables… One of my struggles with the Paleo lifestyle is the same struggle I speak of with writing… This need for immediate gratification, and this reluctance to put in the damn time for something that is primarily created for, and consumed by…yourself. If blogs are raw carrots in the food universe, then surely my student Kumari’s manuscript — a fantasy novel about wolves that she has been writing for four years that her English teacher (ahem) encouraged her to revise (with my help, ahem) for another year before she submits it to a literary agent — is balsamic roasted sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Meanwhile, my husband’s book-length files of poetry and extended essay on the meaning of organized religion is more green beans with onions, mushrooms, and peppers than ants on a log.

I write this to encourage myself, and any readers that I may have (hello! thank you for reading!) to take it slow, and pursue any passion project — with the patience and pureness of heart that passion requires.

Today I had the privilege of observing my students participate in a workshop by Antony John, a young adult novelist who happens to be a parent at the school where I teach. We are at the beginning of our short story unit, and I told my students I would write a short story with them. The two short stories I am in the process of writing for my “collection” are semi-autobiographical and deal with rather personal, adult themes, so I needed to start from scratch. Inspired by an article in the Feb 13 & 20 New Yorker called “Valley Cats: Are L.A’s Mountain Lions Dangerous Predators or Celebrity Guests?” I thought I’d put myself in the position of lion P-45, who has a cult following of sorts but keeps eating people’s pets.

To generate this idea, I, along with my students, all shared our favorite of 10 conflict-crisis-resolution formulas, but today Antony John steered us in a better direction: focus on character first. Events are secondary. (On Tuesday we’ll be drafting character sheets.)

When my student Sophia asked how to get unstuck when you’ve started a short story but don’t know how to finish it, Mr. John returned to the idea of character and embodying them like an actor to figure out what they would do. Also, he pointed out that that we often start short stories with an opening scene in mind, and figuring out the plot, aka, getting unstuck, involves working backwards: what events led to this opening scene?

Before the students came back from lunch, Mr. John and I had a brief conversation about the challenges of setting parameters for story writing versus poetry. I’m no more an amateur short story writer than I am an amateur poet, but I find short stories a lot harder to teach than poetry. He mentioned that his visit to last semester’s classes occurred two weeks before the election, and now, in the Trump universe, he’s been reflecting on the broad value of storytelling as a form of empathy. In that vein, he encouraged my students to draw on what they know, but to veer from the autobiographical and create composite characters.

This emphasis on empathy, and its heightened virtue in our narrowing, fear-mongering political climate, helps me justify the next few hours I’m about to spend on this Friday evening writing for writing’s sake, working on a character I’ve decided to call “Cora” who’s grappling with having children (or not) in a different way than I am, though I’m drawing on my own struggles. I’m going to let myself love on this unpaid, unpublished writing project with the same attention I gave to these green beans and brussels sprouts a few weeks ago:

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Green Beans with Onions, Mushrooms, and Peppers
Adapted from The Whole30 Cookbook

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup white or yellow onion
  • 1/2 cup mushrooms (any variety)
  • 1/2 red bell pepper
  • 1 lb green beans
  • Salt and pepper
  • Ghee, or clarified butter

Instructions

  • Thinly slice the onion. Thinly slice the mushrooms. Cut the bell pepper into thin strips.
  • Fill a large bowl with ice and cold water. Place the ice bath in the fridge.
  • Salt some water and bring it to a boil. Blanch the green beans in the salted water for 20 seconds. Drain them and immediately plunge the beans into the ice bath.
  • Heat some ghee (clarified butter) in a large skillet over medium-high heat, and swirl to coat. Once the fat is hot, add the sliced onions, and cook until translucent.
  • Add the mushrooms, and cook, stirring, until they begin to soften.
  • Add the peppers and cook until both mushrooms and peppers have softened to your liking.
  • Turn the heat to high, and add the green beans. Toss and stir the pan, cooking the green beans with the other vegetables for a few minutes longer.
  • Season the mixture to your liking with salt and pepper.

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Balsamic Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Brussels Sprouts
Adapted from The Whole30 Cookbook

Ingredients

  • 1 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 sweet potato
  • 1/2 lb Brussels sprouts
  • 1/2 red onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • Ghee, or clarified butter
  • Salt and pepper

Instructions

  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Boil the vinegar and then reduce to a simmer — you want it to be reduced by about half, 20 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, peel and chop your sweet potato, slice your red onion, mince your garlic, and trim and halve your Brussels sprouts. Then mix the chopped sweet potato with some melted ghee in a bowl. Spread it on the lined baking sheet.
  • Add some ghee to a large skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl to coat the pan. When the fat is hot, add the Brussels sprouts and cook for a few minutes, allowing them to brown. Add the onion and the garlic for about a minute. Season the mixture with salt and pepper.
  • And the sautéed veggies to the sheet pan of sweet potatoes and spread everything out in an even layer. Roast for about 15 to 18 minutes, until the sweet potatoes and sprouts are tender.
  • Drizzle the pan of roasted veggies with the balsamic reduction.

Lesson Plan, During Reading Activities

George Thomas Open book test. Get the point? CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Here’s a lesson plan for American Literature, The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s pretty straightforward, but it may be useful to other teachers in terms of structuring a during reading activity while reading any novel.

Warm Up: Finding/Collecting HW & Missing Work (5 min)

Project onto the board:

  • Please take out your “What’s In a Name?” Project, worth 50 points
  • The following people are missing their Puritanism notes (list names)
  • The following people are missing their chapters 29-30 questions (list names)
  • The following people are missing their chapters 31-32 questions (list names)

Discussion of “What’s In a Name Project?” (10 min) 15 total

Project onto the board:

  • What does the word connotation mean again?
  • Round robin à briefly share the connotations of your name, what you learned about the meaning of your name

Review of Chapters 29-32 (10 min) 20 total 

  • Divide the class into four sections and have each section come up with a one-sentence summary for each of the four chapters: 29, 30, 31, 32. (5 min)
  • Then share the one-sentence summaries and type onto the projector (5 min)

During Reading Instructions, Chapters 33-34 (5 min) 25 total

Project onto the board:

For each chapter, work with a partner to write:

  • 3 important things that you learned in that chapter
  • 2 things that interested you about that chapter, that you’d like to learn more about
  • 1 thing you have a question about in that chapter

 Be prepared to discuss your 3-2-1 with the class.

Read Chapter 33 — students read along to pre-recorded voice of teacher reading aloud, or can choose to put headphones in and read at their own pace (11 min) 35 total

Work with partner on 3-2-1 (10 min) 45 total

Read Chapter 34 — students read along to pre-recorded voice of teacher reading aloud, or can choose to put headphones in and read at their own pace (10 min) 55 total

 Work with partner on 3-2-1 (10 min) 65 total

Circle up and discuss 3-2-1 (25 min) 90 total

 

 

 

Lesson Plan, Persuasive Essays

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Hope you had a restful and scrumptious Thanksgiving holiday. Now that I’ve had a heaping portion of family conversations, music, home cooking, and a hearty dose of museum perusing – my contingent made it to the Saint Louis Art Museum, the City Museum, the Pulitzer Arts Museum, and Contemporary Art Museum Saint Louis in the span of two days — I’m ready to start the push toward Winter Break. A little less than four weeks…

Here’s Monday’s lesson for Writing Workshop, where my students are working on persuasive essays. They are five to six page papers on a topic of each student’s choice, requiring at least five credible sources (all internet-based is okay). Last class, students wrote down their subtopics on a handout and were supposed to finish drafting their introduction and first subtopic on Google Docs.

I learned a couple of things from reading their subtopic handouts and commenting on their Google Docs:

  • Many of my students are wasting class time – the majority of students didn’t meet the goal of intro + one subtopic. (I sent a friendly e-mail to parents and students today reminding them that the rough draft was due for 200 points on Friday, December 2nd, urging students who don’t have their intro + one subtopic completed to work on the paper over the weekend. Maybe that will help? Maybe not?)
  • Students need a refresher on how to organize their introduction (my rationale behind the multiple choice warm up with recall questions).
  • Identifying subtopics is a deceptively complex task – it’s really about organizing large quantities of research — and I need to model the thought process more in-depth.

Warm Up (5 min)

Present students with a handout with the following multiple-choice questions asking them to recall the structure of the introduction, as presented earlier in the unit

I put the questions in multiple-choice format to jog students’ memory more quickly and to make the process of reviewing the correct answer clearer and smoother:

  1. The intro to my persuasive essay should be at least how long?

a) two half-page length paragraphs, double spaced, 12 point font
b) one half-page length paragraph, double spaced, 12 point font
c) one page-length paragraph, double spaced, 12 point font

  1. The first paragraph of my intro should cover what topic?

    a) my argument
    b) the counterargument to mine
    c) background information on my topic

  1. Should the first paragraph of my intro include in-text citations?

    a) Yes
    b) No

  1. The second paragraph of my intro should cover what topic?

    a) my argument
    b) the counterargument to mine
    c) background information on my topic

  1. Should the second paragraph of my intro include in-text citations?

    a) Yes
    b) No

  1. The last sentence of my second paragraph should be…

    a) a transition sentence into my first subtopic
    b) my thesis statement
    c) a quote supporting my argument

  1. It is okay to use the word “I” in my persuasive essay.

    a) Yes
    b) No

  1. My introduction should have a subtopic heading.

    a) Yes
    b) No

  1. When drafting my introduction, I need my research doc/notes open.

    a) Yes
    b) No

  1. The reason I follow this introduction structure is because

    a) it surprises my reader by taking a turn and therefore engages my reader
    b) it builds my credibility and the persuasiveness of my argument
    c) both a and b

Discuss Warm Up/Take Questions (5-10 min) 10 total

(I find with this particular class it’s very difficult to sustain their attention when I do direct instruction, so I am attempting to make DI more interactive by having them answer very guided questions/discuss the answers…)

Answer & Discuss MC Questions About Subtopic Headings (15 min) 25 total

  1. “Facts of Sex Education” is NOT a good subtopic heading for what reason?

    a) this is not a factual essay
    b) it doesn’t explicitly further the writer’s argument
    c) the capitalization of the words is incorrect

  1. Does the following subtopic heading make an argument that supports the argument, “We Need More Sex Education in Schools”?

“Sex Education Is Not Just About Sex, But About Overall Health and Well-being”

a) Yes
b) No

  1. In a persuasive essay, a subtopic heading should articulate a sub-argument that supports your larger argument.

    a) True
    b) False

  1. Given our discussion, is “History of the Black Nation” a good subtopic heading for a persuasive essay about why Americans should use the term “black” instead of “African-American”?

    a) Yes
    b) No

  1. When you listed your subtopics last class, did you refer to your research notes?

    a) Yes
    b) No

(Teacher will write the steps on the board and students will copy them onto their handout)

Handout looks like this:

How To Identify Appropriate Subtopics

  1. _____________________________________________________________
  1. _____________________________________________________________
  1. _____________________________________________________________
  1. _____________________________________________________________
  1. _____________________________________________________________
  1. Subtopics are hard because you are ________________________________ information.
  1. Definition of synthesize: ____________________________________________________________

Board looks like this:

How To Identify Appropriate Subtopics

  1. Go back to each source on research notes doc
  2. Skim each source or simply your notes, if they are detailed enough
  3. Notice where similar sub-arguments pop up among sources
  4. Draft subtopics and guess how much you can write for that topic
  5. If you don’t think you have 4-5 pages of subtopic (sub-argument) material, DO MORE RESEARCH
  1. Subtopics are hard because you are synthesizing
  1. Definition of synthesize: Combine a number of things into a coherent whole

Transition to Chrome Books/Independent Work Time (5 min) 30 total

Write the following on the board:

  1. Names of students who need to share their Google Doc draft with the teacher
  2. Reminder, login to computers
  3. Goal today: 1-2 more subtopics
  4. Reminder deadline: Friday, December 2nd

Independent Work Time (60 min)

As students are drafting their essays, teacher does the following:

  1. Helps students who haven’t yet shared their documents to do so
  2. Works one-on-one with pre-identified students who have IEPs or who are doing poorly in the class
  3. Redirects students and answers questions

Thanksgiving Creative Writing Lesson Plan

George Thomas Open book test. Get the point? CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

We have school Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Those two days can be tricky – on the one hand, the end of the semester is approaching, so it’s important to stay on track with pacing – on the other hand, many students may be absent or less focused than normal, so it makes sense to do something fun and festive.

With that in mind, here is my lesson plan for Creative Writing the Tuesday before Thanksgiving break:

Warm Up (10 min)

(These directions are projected on the board):

Write a brief description of your contest submission to the Walgreens Expressions Contest. This explanation will be included on the form with your submission. Remember to write your name on your description.

Collect warm-ups by passing them to two students at the front of the right and left sides of the room. Teacher counts back from 20 as students pass.

Instruct students to look at handout with independent work instructions and review the handout (15 min)

  1. Put the finishing touches on your submission to the Walgreens Expressions contest.
  • If you are doing a piece of creative writing, make sure your share your document with O’Donnell’s e-mail (on the board) by the end of class.
  • If you are doing a video, make sure you e-mail it to O’Donnell (e-mail address on the board) by the end of class.
  • If you are doing a piece of visual art, make sure you put it in the inbox (the lefthand bin on the front table) by the end of class.
  • Remember that your Walgreens Expressions entry is a summative assessment, worth 100 points of your grade toward the 60 percent category.
  1. Option 1: in the spirit of Thanksgiving, write a poem thanking someone in your life for something.
  • Make your poem chock full of images.
  • Show, don’t tell your thanks
  • Here is an example from The Poetry Foundation 

Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons
by Diane Wakoski

The relief of putting your fingers on the keyboard,
as if you were walking on the beach
and found a diamond
as big as a shoe;

as if
you had just built a wooden table
and the smell of sawdust was in the air,
your hands dry and woody;

as if
you had eluded
the man in the dark hat who had been following you
all week;

the relief
of putting your fingers on the keyboard,
playing the chords of
Beethoven,
Bach,
Chopin
in an afternoon when I had no one to talk to,
when the magazine advertisement forms of soft sweaters
and clean shining Republican middle-class hair
walked into carpeted houses
and left me alone
with bare floors and a few books

I want to thank my mother
for working every day
in a drab office
in garages and water companies
cutting the cream out of her coffee at 40
to lose weight, her heavy body
writing its delicate bookkeeper’s ledgers
alone, with no man to look at her face,
her body, her prematurely white hair
in love
I want to thank
my mother for working and always paying for
my piano lessons
before she paid the Bank of America loan
or bought the groceries
or had our old rattling Ford repaired.

I was a quiet child,
afraid of walking into a store alone,
afraid of the water,
the sun,
the dirty weeds in back yards,
afraid of my mother’s bad breath,
and afraid of my father’s occasional visits home,
knowing he would leave again;
afraid of not having any money,
afraid of my clumsy body,
that I knew

no one would ever love

But I played my way
on the old upright piano
obtained for $10,
played my way through fear,
through ugliness,
through growing up in a world of dime-store purchases,
and a desire to love
a loveless world.

I played my way through an ugly face
and lonely afternoons, days, evenings, nights,
mornings even, empty
as a rusty coffee can,
played my way through the rustles of spring
and wanted everything around me to shimmer like the narrow tide
on a flat beach at sunset in Southern California,
I played my way through
an empty father’s hat in my mother’s closet
and a bed she slept on only one side of,
never wrinkling an inch of
the other side,
waiting,
waiting,

I played my way through honors in school,
The only place I could
talk

the classroom,
or at my piano lessons, Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary always
singing the most for my talents,
as if I had thrown some part of my body away upon entering
her house
and was no searching every ivory case
of the keyboard, slipping my fingers over black
ridges and around smooth rocks,
wondering where I had lost my bloody organs,

or my mouth which sometimes opened
like a California poppy,
wide and with contrasts
beautiful in sweeping fields,
entirely closed morning and night,

I played my way from age to age,
but they all seemed ageless
or perhaps always
old and lonely,
wanting only one thing, surrounded by the dusty bitter-smelling
leaves of orange trees,
wanting only to be touched by a man who loved me,
who would be there every night
to put his large strong hand over my shoulder,
whose hips I would wake up against in the morning,
whose mustaches might brush a face asleep,
dreaming of pianos that made the sound of Mozart
and Schubert without demanding
that life suck everything
out of you each day,
without demanding the emptiness
of a timid little life.

I want to thank my mother
for letting me wake her up sometimes at 6 in the morning
when I practiced my lessons
and for making sure I had a piano
to lay my school books down on, every afternoon.
I haven’t touched the piano in 10 years,
perhaps in fear that what little love I’ve been able to
pick, like lint, out of the corners of pockets,
will get lost,
slide away,
into the terribly empty cavern of me
if I ever open it all the way up again.
Love is a man
With a mustache
gently holding me every night,
always being there when I need to touch him;
he could not know the painfully loud
music from the past that
his loving stops from pounding, banging,
battering through my brain,
which does its best to destroy the precarious gray matter when I
am alone;
he does not hear Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary singing for me,
liking the sound of my lesson this week,
telling me,
confirming what my teacher says,
that I have a gift for the piano
few of her other pupils had.
When I touch the man
I love,
I want to thank my mother for giving me
piano lessons
all those years,
keeping the memory of Beethoven,
a deaf tortured man,
in mind;

of the beauty that can come

from even an ugly
past.

To briefly analyze “Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons,” come up with five different similes for what the piano means to the speaker in this poem. Be prepared to defend your similes.

  • The piano is like ______________________________________
  • The piano is like ______________________________________
  • The piano is like ______________________________________
  • The piano is like ______________________________________
  • The piano is like ______________________________________
  1. Option 2: in the spirit of Thanksgiving, write a poem that uses the imagery from Thanksgiving foods to write about something other than Thanksgiving. For example, you might use “stuffing” imagery as a metaphor for how busy your life is. You might use sweet potato pie imagery to contrast your hard-edged attitude when someone crosses you. Be creative. Here’s an example that I wrote in about 10 minutes. Be playful:

I Sing Anyway

How I long to hold a note
that is smooth and decadent
as melted butter.

To dissect a melody with the swift precision
of my mother’s hands
dicing an onion.

Instead my voice is
crumbled cornbread.
Sticky, cloying,
pumpkin pie,
with a crack down the middle.

I want to lay out a table
with a white linen cloth
and be the centerpiece,
performing an aria
that is as complete and rounded
as one spoonful
of perfectly salted mashed potatoes.

I want to lay out a table
with a white linen cloth
and lull my company
with a trembling lullaby
that makes every spinach leaf
in my grandmother’s heirloom china
gently
wilt.

I want to lay out a table
with a white linen cloth
and belt out some Beyoncé
that is bright and poppin
as some simmered cranberries.

Instead I’ll have to make do
with my dry turkey
of a throat
and sing anyway,
because I’m happy…
and his eyes are on the sparrow…
and I know he’s watching over me.

And because I sing,
anyway,
I am happy,
feeling simple as a green bean.

  1. You are welcome to do both options 1 & 2, receiving extra credit for your second poem. Both poems are worth up to 20 points toward your class work grade.

Independent work time as the teacher circulates and works with students one-on-one (65 min)

“Right Is Right”

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My last post addressed the first strategy in Teach Like a Champion. It also addressed some bloggers’ critiques of Teach Like a Champion and the more broad dilemma between intentionality and authenticity that I personally experience as a teacher.

Despite my appreciation for the criticisms of Teach Like a Champion, I still view it as a valuable resource. So onward and upward…

Technique #2 is called “Right Is Right,” which really resonated with me. This technique is broader and more far-reaching than “No Opt Out,” in my opinion.

“Right is “Right” is essentially having a high standard when it comes to answers that you accept as correct (for me as an English teacher, I’m thinking mainly of class discussions).

Lemov addresses the widespread tendency of teachers to add on to students’ answers, and then to give the student credit for providing a correct answer, instead of questioning students when they provide a partially correct answer until they reach an answer that is 100 percent correct.

In the section, “Hold out for all the way,” Lemov cautions teachers to distinguish between effort and mastery, rewarding effort but encouraging students to build to mastery.

In “Answer the question,” Lemov points out that students learn to skate by in school by providing smart answers to questions that weren’t asked, so it’s important to hold students accountable to the specific question being asked.

In “Right answer, right time,” Lemov encourages teachers to hold students to answering questions in sequence instead of moving ahead, in order to emphasize the process and make sure all students are all learning instead of just one student moving at an accelerated pace. And then, in “use technical vocabulary,” Lemov encourages teachers to get students to use academic vocabulary in their responses.

The whole point of having a high standard for correct answers is to promote rigor and instill confidence and high expectations in your students – in other words, the power to think critically lies with your students and not add-ons coming from the teacher. It’s about showing my students that they are capable of mastering an answer on their own, with the support of questioning rather than add-ons from the teacher.

To Teach “Like A Champion…”

Brian Angell Summer's Almost Over CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Hello Friends,

Happy early Thanksgiving! You’d think on a food blog inspired by the act of melting butter in a pan, I’d be posting food-oriented thoughts around this time of year, but instead I’m going to throw you a curveball and process my thoughts about the book – I want to call it a cult classic in the charter world — Teach Like a Champion.

As a matter of fact, I am about to grocery shop for my family’s beloved (to me) stuffing recipe, involving mirepoix, bacon, cornbread, spiced pecans, chicken stock, butter…

Anyway. I’m a bit of a crossroads with my writing: in a fit of renewed enthusiasm for freelancing, I renewed my subscription to Writer’s Market and Media Bistro and I wrote a short story earlier this semester that I’ve submitted to a few publications as well as a query about gifted education.

Fellow writers, this site is super helpful if you’re interested in publishing a short story:

Where To Submit Short Stories

When I introduced the idea of “braiding” short stories to my creative writing class, I got all pumped up and started writing a braided piece about August 2014, intertwining my grandfather’s death, Michael Brown’s death, and my own personal struggles in Chicago, removed from it all, a piece that has now stagnated for me that I’ve somewhat abandoned. I’ve been in touch with a freelance writer/family friend and he’s encouraged me not to blog, instead seeking “some” compensation and editorial feedback for my writing. But alas, I feel myself returning to this cluttered, messy, haphazard website that has at times served as a springboard for my freelance “career” (hah), other times as a personal form of documentation, marking the passage of time with my musings on recipes tested, books read, and trips traveled, and right now, much like the end of the summer when I posted a flurry of lesson plans, a way for me to process and publish my thoughts on my job – the teaching of teenagers. As with my students, the act of putting my thoughts about teaching into writing, and more importantly, sharing them with an audience, however small, is about writing to learn, and writing to better myself, and less about the quality of the words I put forth on the virtual page. So bear with me. Read ahead if you like.

One of my biggest dilemmas as a teacher is the balance between intentionality and authenticity… (This is a topic that I’d really like to pitch to a magazine, one that I feel I could write a long article about, but I mention it here as a segue way into Teach Like a Champion). This is my sixth year of teaching, and in my earliest years – like 1, 2, 3 – I placed more of an emphasis on intentionality to the point of writing down scenarios and scripting my responses in the beginning of the year, and even scripting my daily lesson plans to a certain extent. Granted, that’s probably appropriate as a beginning teacher, and now certain responses are engrained in me and I don’t need to really think much about certain responses – in other words, some of my reactions to students naturally fall into both categories, intentional and authentic. But I’ve found in years 5 and now 6, especially, that I lean increasingly towards responding to students in a spontaneous, human way, rather than in a scripted, “this is how a teacher responds” sort of way. And I’ve found that it has yielded very effective results, especially as a teacher of juniors and seniors, the oldest kids in the K-12 system, in building close and authentic relationships. When older students see your humanity, and feel that you interact with them comfortably as one person to another, I’ve found that it builds trust and respect. And avoids power struggles.

Then again… I feel that a classroom is always a performance space to a certain extent, and it’s crucial to run a tight ship. So as I sweep floors, and wipe countertops, empty trash, and otherwise prepare for my favorite holiday – Thanksgiving!!! – I’m delving into a little professional development at the same time, and summarizing what I’m reading for no other reason than to record and clarify for myself some strategies I want to try in my classroom. This post isn’t really about writing, or blogging, it’s for myself, honestly – but whether or not you’re a teacher, most of us have been in school at some point, so I find that most of us are interested in what goes on in schools and are invested on that level alone to make teachers better at their jobs. So, with no further adieu, Technique #1. As I do with my students when I ask them to summarize, this is Teach Like a Champion as I understand it, in my own words.

Technique #1: No Opt Out

So the basic idea behind “No Opt Out” is that you want to teach your students that you won’t let them off the hook when they either don’t know the right answer, or they don’t want to try for it. So the simple idea is, whenever you ask a student for an answer, and they can’t answer the question, you find a way to circle back to that student and have them answer the question. This does a variety of things: it builds individual students’ confidence, it expresses your high standards for all students and your emphasis on 100 percent participation, and it builds a spirit of collaboration, for starters.

It’s very easy to implement, and Teach Like a Champion identifies five different and simple formats for implementing this strategy:

  • Provide the answer yourself, then circle back to the student and have him/her simply repeat it.
  • Seek another student’s help in answering the question, then circle back to the original student and have him/her repeat the other student’s correct answer.
  • Depending the on the nature of the question, invite the whole class to call out/chant the correct answer, then circle back to the original student and have him/her repeat the correct answer.
  • Provide a cue with additional information that helps the student answer the question; then have the student answer the question correctly
  • Call on another student to provide a cue that helps the original student answer the question correctly

What I love about Teach Like a Champion is that the strategies are highly specific and very simple. With so much to think about, not to mention a long to-do list, it’s nice to write on my lesson plan, “No Opt Out” and just strive to hold students accountable more effectively when some of them want to opt out of thinking critically. There’s a part of me, heavily influenced by the charter world, that really believes that in education, the devil is in the details and it’s the small adjustments that count for a lot.

But then again, the struggle between intentionality and authenticity. The fact that we are adult human beings dealing with young human beings. The dichotomy between being told that teaching is “all about relationships” and yet about these draconian, yes, highly specific strategies. Here are some criticisms of Doug Lemov/Teach Like A Champion that get at that central dilemma, in my opinion – What do you think?

Peg Robertson Eviscerates Teach Like a Champion

This School Year Don’t Teach Like a Champion

Why I Stopped Teaching Like a Champion

 

 

Strong and Wrong

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When novice, fourteen-year-old ballet dancers at the high school where I used to teach struck a pose both confidently and incorrectly, the dance department head used to praise them in faculty meetings for being “strong and wrong!”

That’s the phrase that came to mind when I saw the new Meryl Streep movie, Florence Foster Jenkins on Friday night, about a wealthy music lover whose passion for singing and classical music was so strong that it blinded her to her own comically imperfect technique.

In contrast, her husband, played by Hugh Grant, has come to terms with the mediocrity of his acting career, but seems to find redemption in perpetuating Jenkin’s dream of herself, literally trashing bad reviews, screening Jenkin’s concert goers and bribing potential critics to ensure that Jenkins sees herself as a true member of the 1940s New York City music elite.

Streep’s performance was predictably on point, and Hugh Grant played the dapper gentleman convincingly, but the real stars of this movie, in my opinion, are Mr. McMoon, Ms. Jenkin’s diminutive, timid accompanist, played by Simon Helberg, and the costume designer, Consolata Boyle. Both McMoon, with his quivering, fluctuating facial expressions, and Boyle, with her quivering star tiaras that jostle in time to Jenkin’s operatic “hah ah has” and nude mesh stomach overlays that display Jenkin’s sizeable midrift, play up the physical comedy that makes this movie so enjoyable.

And yet, as I laughed through it, it struck a deeper chord: how refreshing it is, when some of the most technically astute dancers starve themselves, and many of the writers the public admires end their lives in suicide, when the phrase “tortured artist” is a cliché we take for granted, and when some of my most talented creative writing students warn me at the beginning of the semester that they are perfectionists, that we sometimes need a laugh-out-loud display of really bad art, delivered with great joy, to remind us that good art, while fundamentally challenging, finicky, and demanding, is about joy, too.

When I think about my own singing journey, it amuses me to observe that the work of most of my voice lessons was learning how to relax my throat. Thinking down when you ascend the scale, yawning exercises, and the like — when I practiced them regularly enough, my range went from 2nd suprano to 1st. A pleasant surprise, the notes I could hit, by simply keeping my throat open.

I suppose that this effort — relaxing into the moment, staying open, to joy, among other things — as much as refining technique, is the challenging work of a singer, or any artist. In that sense, Florence Jenkins truly hit a high note. No joke.

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