Saturday, January 9, 2010

Turning Film into Film Study

Imagine my excitement when, as an incoming first year teaching, I looked at my curriculum guide and saw Braveheart listed as the film supplement to the junior year English course's heroic image unit. What an outstanding film! It will be so much better than those movies that went to the somnambulant school of film-making that I got to watch when I was in high school.

Now fast forward four years. I have "taught" Braveheart in my class each of the last four years. Each year I have tried to do something at least a little bit different. Each year, I have not been satisfied with the results. It turns out that teaching film, especially for those of us with little background in it, is extremely difficult. Because the films can be distracting for some students, as well (they think they don't have to do any "real" work on film days), you do not even have the crutch of a novel to use during these lessons. Something radical had to be done. This summer, I wrote that I would be transforming Braveheart into a true film study. I have done it and I'm quite proud of my accomplishments.

To make my Braveheart study more complete, exciting and valuable, I decided to enlist some help. One of my colleagues had written a comprehensive film study for The Shawshank Redemption, so I spent some time perusing her materials to get a feel for what I thought I wanted to do. Then, I asked a colleague of mine who is both media specialist and TV Production teacher if she would offer her opinions and commentary on the film. Wonderfully, she said yes. We spent about four afternoons sitting and watching Braveheart and making comments throughout the film about everything. She commented largely on camera angles and effects. I talked about themes and parallel structures. I wrote everything down. At the end of this process, I ended up with a massive list of points we had made about the film. I just had to do something positive with it.

I then broke the film down into each day's viewing. This gave me manageable chunks with which to work. I only had to look at a small portion of the notes I had amassed, instead of the entire gigantic document. I examined patterns in the notes and transformed those into expository questions about the film's themes. Best of all, I isolated scenes from the film that clearly presented answers to the questions I wanted to ask my students. Those would be the scenes that we would review (if necessary) to answer each day's viewing guide questions.

The end result of this process was overwhelmingly positive. My students were more involved in the film. They enjoyed it more. We had fascinating discussions about several elements of it. Finally, Braveheart became the film equivalent of teaching a novel in class.

Below, you can see all of my handouts for the new and improved Braveheart film study.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Twitter and Education

Every time a new technology comes along, the responses (in the education world) to it seem to fall into the following categories:

a). excitement
b). complaints about how the old way was "better"
c). avoidance of the technology and refusal to acknowledge its existence, in the hope it just goes away.

People in group A look for ways to incorporate this new technology into their classes as soon as possible, often to the trepidation of superiors and colleagues who may not fully understand this new advance. People in group B generally have little to add to the discussion about this technology; they usually just want to complain about how much things have changed and how teaching was better years ago, etc. People in group C are generally aware of the new technology, and may understand that it might have positive uses, but, primarily due to their own inability to understand how to use this technology, just want to hope it goes away.

The most obvious dividing example of new technology in the classroom is the cell phone/iPod category. These two devices have become so similar (or crossed over, in the case of the iPhone) that they can be merged into one category. Improper use of either of them is an obvious nuisance and constant source of disrespect. No teacher wants to see students texting while he or she is in the middle of a lesson. However, these devices to have educational value. In their ability to browse the web, cell phones are portable carriers of information. If you don't know something, you look it up. Why is this not more encouraged in secondary education? Employers rarely need workers to memorize everything; they just need their employees to be resourceful. If doctors do not understand your symptoms fully, they do research, they don't guess. Information sharing is happening all around us, we should not fight against it in schools.

The iPod also has immense educational value. Articles litter the web about colleges handing them out to incoming first year students. With their ability to run millions of applications and collect data and notes, iPhones and iPod Touches have nearly limitless potential as educational tools. But, we consign them to contraband items.

Part of the reason we do this is because we are firmly in Group B. The old way was better. We didn't have to worry about these items in classrooms ten years ago. Group B is an odd place to be, because the problems have always existed, the objects creating them were the only things that changed. Ten years ago, pagers went off during class instead of cell phones, and students walked around with Walkmen. They were the banes of our existence. All references to the "glory days" should be summarily dismissed. It won't happen, and even I will be hypocritical at times, but it should and we would do well to remember that we can't fight change.

Those previous paragraphs seem to have taken me a bit off course. I just wanted to write about another dividing technology, Twitter. The point of the previous paragraphs was to provide some introduction and guide me right into a discussion on one specific technology. I'm not sure I've succeeded, however, and I think I ended up in a different place than I intended. But, to save face, and reroute this essay, let's place Twitter in the "scary new technology" category with the iPods and cell phones.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Twitter is set up as a social networking site, in which users post tweets (of 140 characters of less) about what they are up to at any given moment. The concept sounds both simple and incredibly stupid. Who cares what you are doing? If people follow your twitter feed, apparently someone does. If this is the point of Twitter, then certainly it has no educational value, and is merely another diversion for students to pursue, when they should be applying themselves to their diligent studies.

But, I want to be in group A, always. I want to stay excited about my job and my career and my potential by trying to be at the forefront of something new and exciting and, dare I say, revolutionary. Twitter does have uses. Anyone can receive tweets, all they have to do is sign up. It's free. As long as you have a Twitter client on your computer, cell phone, and/or iPod, you can follow what anyone writes. Think of the potential. Parents complain that they do not know their students' homework. So, I could type the homework into Twitter. Automatically, all of my students' parents know what to discuss with their children that evening. Even the students could subscribe, which would be very handy for those kids who can't seem to bring home their notebooks but wouldn't dare lose their cell phones. And, everything would be written in real-time, as it was happening, with time and date stamps. It would help to create a culture of accountability.

But, let's get even more radical, shall we? Imagine that you set up a student as a designated note-taker during a class discussion. You let him use his cell phone (gasp! sacrilege! please stop!) and tell him he will tweet everything of value said in class. First of all, that student gets to play with technology. Secondly, he is forced to pay attention, because he has a job to do. Finally, he is simultaneously learning important summarizing skills, as tweets are limited to 140 characters. As an added benefit, the rest of the class can simply participate in the discussion, without the need to take notes. The Twitter feed will exist in perpetuity, available for all to relive later. Even the absent students would get a good sense of what happened in class that day.

Group A is like the front of the bus. You have the best view of what's ahead.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Greatness of Google Documents

Google Documents is one of the greatest locations for teachers on the world wide web. I type all of my lesson and unit plans into Google docs and I immediately gain two benefits. One, my materials are safely and securely stored somewhere that is not my computer, greatly reducing the possibility of catastrophic data loss. Two, I can then share my documents with other people (send lesson plans to a supervisor, for example) or post them to web pages. It is all free. And, on top of all of this, I found another excellent use for Google Documents: a digital (and permanent) blackboard.

In late March of this year (2008-2009 school year), my supervisor was coming in to observe one of my classes. I was teaching a lesson on Ray Bradbury's short story "The Veldt" (one of my all time favorites). The general thesis or objective for the lesson had to do with pitfalls of too much technology. I don't remember it exactly (although all of the class notes will be available to read at the end of this post), but the way I taught that lesson forever changed how I run my class.

About a week before fate made me a more competent teacher, our department received some LCD projectors for our laptops. My room (which I share with a colleague) became one of the lucky housings for a projector. Armed with this outstanding piece of technology (while simultaneously preaching about its limitations, the irony is not lost), I put it to full use during the lesson.

I set up the projector and my laptop on a spare desk at the front of the room, and wheeled my desk chair around so I could sit at the laptop while it projected on the pull down screen. This set up allowed me to access various technological functions of my laptop, such as collaborative web sites or iTunes song previews. Yes, I had to give up the power induced by standing in front of the class, but I did not miss it. Nor did my class suffer, either. They were so interested in what I would do next that there would be no behavioral issues. As an added bonus, I did my fair share of standing up to talk to the students, then sitting back down to play with technology, and all of this movement also helped to maintain the energy level.

This set up created one major disadvantage for me. I could not access the blackboard, as it was hidden away behind the screen. I needed to take notes. I needed my students to take notes. What options did I have? The laptop, of course. And Google Documents. I opened a new Google doc and began typing out the day's notes (in large font for the benefit of all). Students had no trouble reading what I was writing, I could go back to previous material for slower note-takers, and I can type much faster than I could write. Plus, I never once had to turn my back to the students to create notes. I cannot think of a single negative to using Google Documents in this fashion. The web site also automatically saved all drafts (and even revisions) of my notes.

Now, several months later, I can publish those notes right here on this site, for all to see. Please click here.

I have not written so much as a single letter on the blackboard since.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


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Go here:


and follow the instructions.

It's really helpful. Works on more annoying websites, too.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Update on Beowulf

Every so often, I receive emails in my inbox notifying me that my Beowulf lesson plans have been downloaded. (For the unfamiliar, my Beowulf lesson plans from my first three years of teaching are available here.) I am somewhat flattered that anyone would be interested in any of my work, and also surprised that there would be any use in those particular Beowulf plans. I wrote them during my first three years of teaching. They are hardly the work of a master teacher. Rather (as I stated in the podcast on the previous post, as well), they show growth of someone becoming more comfortable with his profession. The year three plans are the best of the bunch, but even they could use some updating.

Thankfully, I have not simply sat back and allowed lesson plan rot to set in. I have made changes to the plans every year I have been working. I am not going to include my materials for year four of Beowulf, but I do think it right to attach links to my Beowulf plans (and perhaps materials) from this year.

For those of you downloading (or coming here looking for material you can use), there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, we here at Dumont High School do not attempt to teach Beowulf in its entirety to college prep juniors. Rather, we have the students read each of the three fights and then fill in some of the background information for the rest of the story. This practice predates my arrival at the school, but it is certainly not without merit (I have continued it, after all). It allows the students to understand the heroic aspects of the text without becoming bogged down in cultural references that escape them. It also brings a much faster pace to the reading and teaching of the text.

The second point to bear in mind is that the lesson plan format has changed. No longer do we compile daily lesson plans. Our school received several visits from NJ QSAC this year, therefore prompting a new standardized unit plan format. The unit plan format allows for greater teacher freedom and flexibility, while still covering at least all of the material used in previous year's lesson plans. The plans are no longer cut into exact day-by-day chunks, but this allows me as a teacher to give the students more or less time (as necessary) to grapple with and ultimately grasp the lesson (or in this case, unit) objectives.

Finally, I have added the first and last chapters of John Gardner's novel Grendel to my teaching of Beowulf. It makes for an excellent counterpoint, and the students seem to respond well to its liveliness and the lessons in perspective it creates.

Without further ado, I present the updated Beowulf plans and materials. May I continue to receive emails reminding me about how often they are downloaded.

Beowulf Year Five Unit Plan
(this is a living document, so all changes made to the document will automatically be updated on the web)

Beowulf Year Five Materials are Below

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Online Resources

When I first started teaching four years, I was in a position similar to that of just about every beginning teacher: I had a course curricula and little else. I had no materials. I had no worksheets. I had no organizational system to use while structuring my classes. During my first year of teaching, I created all of those things. Even though they were hardly of the highest quality, I at least built a base upon which I could work. Needless to say, I slaved away for many long days, nights, and weekends building that base.

At the end of my third year of teaching, I came up with an idea to help first year teachers and to promote collegiality within our English department. I wanted to create an online resource center. The idea behind it would be to have teachers post their worksheets, lessons, notes, anything that was appropriate to a secure website so all other departmental colleagues could look at them and adapt them as appropriate. It would encourage sharing of materials, help people who were new to the school or the teaching of a particular class, and hopefully result in the creation of new and even better resources, as others built upon the work that was already there.

One of my English department colleagues and I set out to make this resource center a reality. We applied for some summer hours, got them, and set out to achieve our goals. With the help of Google Documents (another vote for its greatness), we established a secure site, with materials that is accessible to everyone in our department. For security issues, I obviously cannot embed the site directly or link to it. However, you can watch the video at the bottom of this post to see how easy it is to post to the site and what it looks like.

In the summer of 2009, I applied for more hours to expand on this resource center by setting out to make a sort of online textbook of supplemental texts used in each grade level and course in our department. This site gives a broad over view of supplemental texts (and sometimes main texts, when available digitally) for use throughout our department. The project is not finished, and more information/material will be added in the future. You can view the site here.

Video (Embed Here - Still to come - These things take time)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Plans for Year #5

If anyone's reading this (and people are at least coming here to download Beowulf lesson plans and look at the pictures), I think the year #5 goals post would be a lot more coherent if I also posted exactly what I intended to teach in each of my courses. So, here goes.

SRA English
As many reading and writing exercises and techniques as necessary to help these students pass (preferably) the HSPA test or the SRA tests.

English 3 CP
Heroic Image Unit
parts of Grendel by John Gardner
parts of La Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
MacBeth by William Shakespeare
the film Braveheart
Being There by Jerzy Kosinski

Human Foibles Unit
The Inferno by Dante Alighieri
The Decameron by Giovanni Bocaccio
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

In Search of Self Unit
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Antigone by Sophocles
parts of Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning
Night by Elie Wiesel
Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

English 1 CP
Introductory Literary Terms
Various Poems
Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare
Writing Unit
Comparative Mythology
The Odyssey by Homer
Various Short Stories
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

This is the just the general overview. It does not include supplementary materials or instructions, like writing, research, etc.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Goals for Year #5

Teaching is never boring. Each day is different than the last, and each year brings with it new challenges. And each year I challenge myself to do better. So, without further (and unnecessary) instruction, here are my goals for my fifth year of teaching.

English 3 CP
This will be my fifth year teaching this course.

1). Write a challenging midterm exam while keeping a challenging final.
This will be my first year of needing a midterm exam, so I hope that I will be able to create one that is an effective measuring instrument of students' performance. I am also interested to see how much of the course I have covered by the time of this exam. I have some ideas where I will be, but I think Robert Burns once warned us all what happens to well-laid plans.

2). Teach Slaughterhouse-Five in a memorable fashion.
I lobbied for the inclusion of this text for two years. I better not ruin the experience of teaching it. I'm thinking of tying this in with the horrific events of September 11, 2001 and discussing how we deal with unspeakable and absurd tragedy. The novel has so much great material, though: the Tralfamadorian world view, how much free will we really have, the importance (or lack thereof) of words, etc. So it goes...

3). Teach the Canterbury Tales and the Decameron as social criticism.
This goal keeps popping up. Guess who keeps letting himself down? This will be better.

4). Do a real film study on Braveheart.
As opposed to those "fake" film studies I have been doing. Seriously, though, I have a plan to make a really strong film study for this film that should engage the students.

5). Teach more writing and teach it better.
My students answer almost zero multiple choice questions in my class and zero short answer questions. All they do is write. But there is still room for improvement. Especially when it comes to research or longer thesis driven assignments.

English 1 CP
This will be my fourth year teaching the course.

1). Organize The Odyssey in a more effective fashion.
I have a new textbook this year and a new version of The Odyssey. Those two things alone mean something will change. Now I have to make sure it is for the better.

2). Spend more time discussing writing and practicing writing.
This is always challenging, because there are so many ways to try to do this, and no proven way to succeed. But I will try again.

3). Teach even more excellent short stories.
I have made this unit my own and included several truly excellent short stories (that did not come from the textbook). This year I will try to include even more.

4). Incorporate more varied activities into the Comparative Mythology Unit.
Two years ago, when I last taught this, we spent a lot of time reading in class. That's not exactly the most exciting thing for twenty-eight ninth graders. Therefore, I vow that this year will be more interesting.

Goals for SRA English
This will be my fourth year teaching this course.

Only 1). Get every student through this process. The state of NJ made this process a LOT tougher this year. My goal is to try my best to ensure that each student I get finishes this course and can graduate.

I'll be back in July to check on these...

Friday, July 3, 2009

Revisiting Year #4 Goals

Now that year #4 is over, it is time to revisit what I wrote in this space in August of 2008 about what I wished to accomplish during the course of the school year. I'm going to deal with each goal individually.

Goals for English 1 CP
1). Improve Poetry instruction by making it more meaningful and accessible.
-- This still needs improvement. We have a new textbook for the upcoming 2009-2010 school year, however, and I've spent some time flipping through Classroom Notes Plus and other National Council of Teachers of English publications, so perhaps this is the year for a major jump.
2). Engage students in more meaningful discussions relating readings to their modern lives.
-- This is difficult to gauge, but I think I did a better job relating readings to what is going with my students in their own lives.
3). Teach The Odyssey in a more cohesive, understandable fashion.
-- I had a student teacher teach the Odyssey, so I will have to revisit this one.
4). Introduce some research element to the Comparative Mythology unit.
-- Same as the previous goal.
5). Spend more time discussing modern myths.
-- Again, same as the previous two. If I were an outsider reading this, I would get the impression that Mr. McGuirk just passed off his weakest units to a student teacher. Fair assumption, but the timing just worked out that way.
6). Flesh out the lessons on my two favorite stories, "The Most Dangerous Game," and "The Birds," and try to really help the students to understand the moods of the stories.
-- This absolutely worked. I did a much better job teaching these two stories this year and I think that everyone benefited.

Goals for English 3 CP
1). Read sections of The Prince during MacBeth and use them to analyze the characters of MacBeth and Lady MacBeth.
-- I did not do this. I think I still do not feel that comfortable with The Prince. I may put this on the back burner for another year or so. My MacBeth priorities have shifted for this upcoming year.
2). Find a better way to teach vocabulary.
-- I ended up teaching vocabulary exactly as I had in the past. This is still something that needs more work. I've been reading up on it, though.
3). Create more interesting lessons around The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron.
-- Both of these were vastly more interesting this year, but there is still room to grow. The Canterbury Tales in particular can be made much more interesting by focusing on how they are examples of social criticism.
4). Find a research paper topic that is interesting and challenging.
-- This was much better. Students wrote about what it meant to be heroic and I had them submit multiple drafts throughout the year. This was still not the success I wanted, but it was much, much better than previous years.
5). Find a year-long project idea that encourages reflection without being overly confusing or cumbersome.
-- This worked out nicely because I tied it in with the research paper. Fortunately, Dumont High School is moving to midterm exams for next year. Final projects will not exist next year.

Goals for SRA English
1). Differentiate assignments better based upon a particular student's needs.
-- I would say that this worked. All of my SRA students passed the HSPA test.
2). Stay organized with all of the paperwork needed to run this class.
-- I was much better with this during the past year. I rarely had to make any last minute photocopies, which was encouraging.
3). Continue to positively reinforce all student work.
-- Again, every student made it through the HSPA, so I would hope that is an indication that I am doing something right.

General Goals

1). Create better methods to teach and evaluate vocabulary skills.
-- This still needs work.
2). Encourage students to become more proficient at answering open-ended questions.
-- This is difficult to gauge. It is especially important for juniors to do well in this area, as their HSPA scores often ride on open-ended questions. Of the 44 juniors I had take the HSPA, only 2 did not pass. That is a pretty good percentage. I recognize that they have to pass it on their own, but I at least tried to make them comfortable with the types of questions that they would see.
3). Do not leave so much work for the end of each marking period or for the end of the school year.
-- Failure. Always tons to do at the end. Better than last year, but again needs more work.

Next year's goals coming soon.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Class Redesign #1

I've been reading a lot of educational reform and redesign materials recently. All of the literature speaks about the classroom of the twenty-first century. In this classroom, teachers and students will focus on collaboration, problem solving, authentic learning, and higher level critical thinking, among other important skills. I don't believe that this movement is a passing fad. I think that these skills are essential now and will remain so for a long time.

All of that being said, most of our current classes are currently running on an outdated model. Students sit in their rows, teachers are the fountains on knowledge, and every two weeks there will be a test (so grades exist for the parents to see).

I have not figured out how to successfully redesign a classroom for the next century. I do, however, have some ideas, which I at least want to add to the current pool of knowledge that exists on the topic. As I am an English teacher, I'm going to write strictly from an English class point of view. I am also certain that I will revisit these ideas many times, to refine them. I also hope to begin experimenting with many of them.

1). All reading assignments are completed in class. Yes, this means more class time. However, I think that I am currently doing about fifty percent of all of my class's readings during meeting time anyway. This at least ensures that the students will have actually read half of the course material. Whenever I assign reading for homework, at least half of my class does not complete the homework. Yes, I assign questions that I collect to perform a reading check and as of right now half of my class simply takes a zero. If we did the readings in class, we can ensure that one hundred percent of the readings are being completed.

2). In class reading is a great opportunity for collaborative education. If the students are going to complete their readings in class anyway, why not have them work together in small groups or teams? This would enable them to work on their collaborative skills as well as their reading abilities. The groups or teams could follow any model that is convenient. For example, students with similar reading abilities could work together. Or, each group would get one more advanced student who could help the others. Students love group work, but all too often it is because they use it to waste time. Perhaps the no reading homework guarantee would serve as an incentive to complete readings with their group members.

If I step back and look at the big picture, I see a lot of positives that can come from these first two steps. Step one would ensure that every student had completed every reading assignment, so that each student would have the background knowledge necessary for higher levels of discourse. Step two would provide a collaborative model to completing necessary work (without having to assign awkward group grades), and it would create an effective use of class time while students are still in the middle of a text. I get so frustrated sometimes with what to do in class while I'm waiting for students to finish a text so that we can examine it as a whole. Using steps one and two, at least students would always be working towards finishing a text.

3). Eliminate single lesson objectives. Why does something have to be "finished" at the end of each class lesson? I understand that it doesn't have to be, but this is the traditional method for teaching and observing. Each lesson has an objective that should be reached in order for that lesson to be ordained a success. I say we do away with these lesson objectives. We should replace them with unit objectives. If, for example, my class is reading Oedipus Rex, I would have a list of objectives (that I would provide at the beginning of the reading) that students should be able to complete by the time we are done discussing that text. This frees up time to go into greater detail in whatever topics the students feel are important, without feeling like lessons or lesson plans are being compromised. If we reach an objective on Monday, great. If not, we try again on Tuesday.

4). Fewer assessments and certainly none of the multiple choice variety. Teachers give multiple choice tests because they are as easy to grade as running them through the Scantron machine. However, in the grand scheme of life, they are useless. When will a person ever need to apply multiple choice test taking skills in his or her future life? Which person will you marry? A... Which house will you buy? A... B...C...D... I can't think of a time (I'm open to ideas, though). So let's tear up the multiple choice tests and replace them with assessments that challenge higher order thinking. Instead of asking students to provide definitions, let's ask them to apply those definitions. This should also reduce cheating, as we can allow them to use all of their notes and class materials. It would encourage better note-taking, as the students would feel that their notes will be of immediate benefit to them. It's also much less tempting to look at someone else's test, when you have lots of answers right in your own notebook. You just have to apply them.

That's all for now. More to come as I think of them. Please comment. This is an issue that can use as many voices as it can find.