Thursday, December 27, 2007

Teaching with My Brother Ryan

(photo of my brother Ryan teaching)

The most difficult aspect of my first two years of teaching was learning curriculum based material well enough to be able to create meaningful lessons for the students. Just reading and understanding a particular book is not enough to be able to offer an authentic learning experience. Somehow, while reading, I would have to probe into the depths of the book, think about its themes, and try to find some relevance to our modern-day society. When students can connect books to their own lives, they become much more involved in the learning process. Their faces light up with recognition. Needless to say, a class truly has some of its best moments when students are being engaged and challenged. With some books, I was able to create valuable lessons on my first try. With others, I am still searching for a method that will finally reach my level of expectation. In one case, I used outside help to make a lesson that will only improve with time.

At the beginning of May, I decided to teach Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “The Lie” for the first time. The story fits into the “Search of Self” unit of the English 3 CP curriculum. It is a deceptively simple story about a boy who is denied admission to the boarding school that several generations of his family have attended. Of course, there are larger societal implications of nonconformity, settling for mediocrity, rebelling against established laws, and so forth. Trying to plan a lesson for this story seemed daunting and confusing. Fortunately, I had my younger brother, Ryan. Ryan had just completed his senior year of college, writing an Honors Thesis about the role of social machines in Kurt Vonnegut’s writings. I first asked him to help plan the lesson with me, then I asked him if he wanted to teach it with me. He was more than happy to help.

We brainstormed furiously for this class, knowing that we were faced with a difficult lesson objective: we wanted students to understand Vonnegut’s opinions about how we define ourselves. We drew up pages of notes, rejected ideas, tried new ones, thought of ways to link them, and ultimately created an outline that flowed extraordinarily well from activity to lecture to discussion and back again. By the end of the lesson, we surmised, students should be able to understand the lesson objective.

Ryan’s first (and only, to this point) day in the classroom was not the smooth ride I’m sure he envisioned. He learned a lot about the challenges of a high school classroom, which can be so different from a high level college course. But, for the first time, I felt like an experienced teacher, able to help him convey information to the students, and to rephrase difficult questions. Students responded to him, naturally, since he was a different presence and change from me. By the end of the lesson, I felt that we had accomplished our objective. My best evidence that we had achieved our success came when students were able to apply Vonnegut’s ideas to other stories we studied, like Night or Raisin in the Sun. I was so happy with the lesson that we created that I plan to be observed while teaching this lesson, on my own, in the fall. I’m sure it will be revised somewhat, but I plan on using my brother’s ideas to help create a lesson that is refined, creative, engaging, and challenging.

To view a slideshow of our work in creating this lesson, click here.

Written: 8/6/07

The Oracle

There is no question in my mind that my second year of teaching was a much greater success than the first. I was more prepared, more confident, and more competent. Because I had taught much of the material before, I felt as if I had a better understanding of how my students would react to it. I had some inkling as to what they would like and what they would dislike. I could also predict what they would comprehend easily and with what material they would struggle. This additional knowledge helped me to be much more organized and better prepared. I was able to create more effective lessons and I was able to create them more quickly and efficiently. These improvements helped to make my life much easier during year two than it was during year one. The first year felt like one long sprint from September to June; the second year only felt like periodic sprints interspersed with periods of walking.

The biggest difficulty during my second year of teaching came in the form of an extracurricular activity. During the end of my first year, Ms. Penny Mascarelli, our Director of Student Activities, approached me about becoming co-advisor of the yearbook. Fearing the time commitment, I declined. However, I still wanted to be more involved in the school. Therefore, I became, along with fellow English teacher Mr. Marcos Vargas, a co-advisor of The Oracle, Dumont High School’s literary magazine. This experience provided more challenges than I could have expected. Being a new advisor is certainly a difficult experience. Being a new advisor of a club without extensive records is even more challenging. We took over a publication that did not have much in the way of detailed information about its activities. It also did not have much publicity with the student body, as evidenced by the fact that students initially reacted with confused expressions when told about The Oracle. Mr. Vargas and I had two missions. We wanted to increase student awareness about our publication, and successfully publish a book.

We began soliciting submissions in October, even going so far as to set up an email address to which students could submit their own artistic creations (poems, short stories, essays, photographs, drawings, paintings). Student response was slow at first, but began to increase with word of mouth publicity. We also made fliers that each English teacher could give out in class. We talked to our classes about the book and asked for submissions. We extended the submission deadline. Finally, by early March (about a month and a half behind schedule), we had enough artistic, creative submissions to publish a magazine.

We thought that the hardest part was over. It was, for all intents and purposes, mission accomplished. We were, of course, wrong. We still had to lay out the book, compile it, and edit it. Even with some excellent student help, this still took a month and a half. We did not have a final first draft done until right before the April vacation. Getting that done was an emotional lift, but the hardest issues still remained. We still had to re-edit for content, to remove anything that might be offensive to the student body or the community at large. Then, we had to find a publisher, as our needs conflicted with the company that had previously done the work. Finally, by the beginning of June, we had the book in our hands.

Mr. Vargas and I were quite proud of our accomplishments during this year with The Oracle. We produced a very attractive book of high quality. We published the first ever full color literary magazine at Dumont High School. And we bonded with several students, who worked very hard to achieve the club’s goals. Although I can’t speak for Mr. Vargas, I also burnt myself out. Almost three straight months of thinking and worrying about the magazine took its toll. I was exhausted by the end of the school year, not to mention stressed.

There are lessons to be learned. Next year, we will start earlier on the magazine. We will do layout in smaller chunks, maybe once every two weeks year round. We will try to get the magazine turned in for re-editing by March 15th. We have a publisher, so that headache should vanish. Even though I had a much better grasp on my teaching material during my second year, working on the literary magazine made me feel like a first year teacher all over again. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I knew that this job would be challenging, but I had to experience it to fully understand the weight of that challenge. Next year I will be better prepared and make much better choices in regards to the production of this piece of literature. My first year as a co-advisor of The Oracle will certainly be used as an important learning experience.

To view a photo album of the 2006-2007 Oracle, click here. All names and grades have been removed to protect the privacy of those that submitted their work. The staff page and the table of contents have also been omitted. Otherwise, this is the complete book, including mistakes.

To view the Oracle as a slideshow, click here.

Written: 7/23/07

SRA -- Special Review Assessment

At the beginning of the 2006-2007 school year, my schedule called for me to teach one section of Reading and Writing Workshop. This class has been designed to offer remedial help to underclassmen who are preparing to take the HSPA test. I worked hard over the summer to prepare to teach the class and to try to offer the best lessons possible. Imagine my surprise, then, when everything changed about three weeks into the school year. One of my English teaching colleagues left the district, and we hired a brand new teacher to replace her. Due to this series of circumstances, I gave up the Reading and Writing Workshop course. Instead, I was to teach SRA. The courses do share quite a few similarities, as the whole idea is to help students with their reading and writing skills. However, SRA is considerably more intense. All of the students in the class are seniors, and they need to pass the class to ensure that they will graduate. I found out I would be teaching this class at the end of September. I knew nothing about the class. I had never taught it before. I had no materials. I scrambled for a week doing research, learning everything I could, and trying to be as well-prepared as possible. Then, I actually stepped in front of that class, and I felt like a first year teacher on the first day of school again.

Despite the initial feelings of nervousness or chaos, teaching SRA became one of the most rewarding experiences of my year and I am greatly looking forward to teaching the class again this fall. The course helped me to be organized, as I had to maintain records and photocopies for fourteen students. It also taught me how to respond to students as individuals and to cater to their own strengths and weaknesses. During each class period, I worked with students one-on-one to ensure that their skills were improving. I laid out challenges that were unique to each of them. I wrote questions specifically for each student. I helped them reason out answers and explain them. And, perhaps most importantly, I tried my best to support them and encourage them in their quest to do something that was obviously quite difficult.

There is no more rewarding experience than working with students face-to-face. Whenever I did this, I could see, very clearly, how they had improved and changed. I could also make suggestions that would apply to each student as an individual, as opposed to blanket suggestions for a whole class. Talking to the students also helped me to learn about them and their experiences, as many of these students came from other countries and struggled to acclimate themselves to life in the United States. These conversations helped me to form bonds with the students in the class. We learned to trust each other and I feel that the process helped me when working with them. They took my suggestions more seriously, because they knew that I was looking out for them.

The SRA class worked out extremely well for me and for the students. All of the students passed the class, so they fulfilled that particular requirement for graduation. I got a lesson in how to teach writing, and how to really help the students improve their language skills. And, perhaps most importantly, bonds were formed in that classroom between teacher and student, as everyone knew we had to work together to succeed. Even after those students had passed the class and moved on with their senior years, they still said hello to me in the halls and I made sure to continue my investment in them, asking them about their future plans and listening intently when they responded.

Written: 7/16/07

Classroom Management

In each of my teacher preparation classes, my professor said that the most difficult thing to teach and to learn was the skill of classroom management. They all said that each person must learn classroom management through a trial and error process. There is no single most effective method to organizing and policing a classroom full of teenagers. I would have to agree with these assessments. All of my classroom management strategies are now the direct result of two years of experience. Yes, I learned some tips along the way. But, those tips would be worthless without experiences on which to reflect. The first thing that I learned about classroom management is to always remain calm. If students manage to make you flustered through their actions, those actions are only going to continue. Once you, as the teacher, show frustration, resentment, or uncertainty, they lose respect for you and begin to take your words and actions less seriously. This is certainly a struggle, as students can and will do things to try to get under your skin or to test you. However, I have found that maintaining a calm demeanor greatly helps in my ability to manage a classroom. If I do not react strongly to anything, students learn that I am not easily frustrated. Remaining calm also helps me because, if I ever do get frustrated, they take it seriously. They know that it is such a rare occurrence that they must have done something rare and notable.

I have also learned not to yell. During my second year teaching seminars, the instructor made this point and so I went back to school determined to try it. Much to my surprise, not yelling really helped in my classroom management. Students only laugh when you yell. An even-toned statement about what makes me angry seems to have a much better effect, if I’m trying to scare them back into line. Students have even written this to me, in end of year surveys, so this idea certainly seems to have a great deal of merit. Next year, during my third year in the classroom, my goal is not to yell at all. I do not know if this completely doable, but I certainly plan to try, as this method seems to have plenty of benefits.

The most important aspect of classroom management for me is knowing the personalities of the students. I spend a great deal of time talking to each student and trying to gauge their reactions to comments I make, their sense of humor, and to which strategies they respond best. This helps immensely in classroom management. I know which students enjoy humorous banter, which need attention, which are very sensitive, and which just need to be motivated. The students also feel as if I am speaking to them personally, which of course, I am. In this aspect, teachers become social workers, most interested in catering to the specific needs of our students. When done properly, students also know that I respect them. This makes all of the difference. How often do kids feel disrespected these days? If I can show them that I will treat them like full-fledged human beings, they are almost one hundred percent certain to return the favor. This helps to eliminate many difficulties in classroom management. Respect is so simple, yet difficult to attain. However, it does wonders in the classroom, as it builds a community of individuals who respond to each other in a positive fashion.

Written: 6/27/07

Moving Rooms

Whenever I asked friends of mine who are teachers for advice, they almost always give the same recommendation: “Get your own room!” This is a strange piece of advice because I can’t really control the room assignments. I have, however, come to learn why they say this. During my first year of teaching, I had one class each in rooms 120, 123, 206, 302, and 304. I also had Mac Lab Duty and Cafeteria Duty. And, my desk was situated in room 113. Admittedly, by March of that year, all of my classes were relocated to room 110, as well as my desk. During my second year of teaching, I had classes in rooms 110, 113, and 206, as well as an SDL in room 202 and Media Center Duty. Essentially, during my first two years, I have moved around quite a bit. Rarely did I ever spend two consecutive class periods in one space. Until I spent some time moving this frequently, I did not understand the significance of one’s own classroom.
Moving rooms is not a detriment to teaching. It is, however, an extra piece to consider while planning for each day and week. I could not set up a lesson several periods in advance and leave it in place, as other teachers would be using the room in the intervening time. I could not leave notes on the board for the next class. And, I always had to make sure that I had every piece of material with me for whatever class I was teaching next. Essentially, switching rooms taught me to be highly prepared and highly organized.

As my third year of teaching begins, I am scheduled to have all of my classes in room 110. This does remove some of the burden of carrying many items with me during the course of a school day. However, due to my first two years of moving, I have established many sound organizational practices that I can maintain even in my own (still shared with other colleagues) space. I have boxes for all of my student work, so that I can keep their papers organized into folders. This way, at any point, for any reason, students can check their grades. I have class folders in which I keep graded papers that need to be returned. I keep a stack of large paper clips for handouts that I need to give to each class. Using these clips, the papers can easily be transported. I also use these clips to keep student papers together. When I receive student papers, I immediately make check marks to keep track of whose papers I have received. Moving rooms for two years has taught me all of these strategies to remain organized and sane. Now that I will not be changing rooms, I still plan to employ these practices, as I find that, in general, they make my teaching life easier and more organized.

Written: 6/20/07

The Gap

As I compiled the previously written reflective entries for this blog, I noticed that there was quite a large gap, date-wise, between entries. There is an entry from September 17, 2005. Then, there are no more entries until September 9, 2006. After that, a gap exists until the summer of 2007, when the reflective writing begins in earnest.

I feel the need to try to explain this gap. During my first year of teaching, I wrote about my first week and that was it. I had planned to write more, but I think I was just too tired to actually follow through. "Create portfolio writings" remained on my to-do list for the entire school year, but no more writings appeared. I quite simply could not muster the energy to do them. That first year became very much about survival.

I did not write in the summer of 2006, either. Instead, I spent that summer scanning in documents that I thought might be useful for this portfolio. Some of them made the cut, others did not, but I needed to have scans to see what materials I actually had with which to work.

During my second year of teaching, I once again commented upon the first week. Then, no more entries until the year ended. I could have done more during the second year, but I feel that waiting ended up being the correct option for me. By waiting for the school year to end, I could process it in its entirety. I could examine its successes, its failures and be able to step away from the effects that the school year had on me. I feel that this choice was successful, since it led to a flurry of reflective entries. The ability to recharge enabled me to commit myself to this task with a renewed sense of purpose.

Written: 12/27/07

The First Week of Teaching

Year 1

I wanted to write this entry about my first day of teaching, but I was much too tired. Because of the construction projects, we started the year with a full week of school, as opposed to the customary Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of years past. When you’ve never done this before (excluding student teaching, which is a whole different idea), a day of teaching is exhausting, never mind a week. It was one of the most draining experiences of my life. I am writing this reflection, now, on a Saturday, to get my thoughts on paper before I lose them. I’d also like to be able to use this in my tenure reflective portfolio. However, I have to get this done quickly, because I still feel as if I have several hundred things to do just to be ready again by Monday. Right now, the whole process is overwhelming. There are lots of activities to track and prepare, and there feels like there just aren’t enough hours in the day. I don’t see as of yet how I’m going to have time to do things this year. I’m going to be pretty busy putting a lot of effort into my job. However, I signed up for this with all of my teaching classes, so now I’m going to follow through on it and work as hard as I possibly can.

The first week of school, besides the exhaustion, seemed to go about as well as I could expect. I suffered the nerve-wracking experience of having the classroom of my first class changed AFTER the class had already started, so I had to stand in the hall with all of the students. I think every one of us felt a bit uncertain about that experience. I wanted so badly to be in control from the beginning, and already the situation felt out of my hands, as I couldn’t even direct them to the proper room. Not exactly a proper or auspicious beginning. We did get settled, however, and I managed to keep the students busy for most of the week.

I am, however, having trouble adjusting to the fifty-five minute periods. When I student taught, I only had forty minute periods, so this is much different. Fifty-five minutes just feels like an eternity. It also tells me that I have not done a very good job planning, perhaps because I don’t really know how to plan. I’ve been writing out activities and structures for each of my classes, but I had to do it each night, just to stay on task and focused. It’s been very hard work, and, to top it off, I’ve been getting to bed rather late as well. Basically, a tough start. I’m not really sure what I can do to improve at this point, because I don’t know how things will change, when they’ll change, or if they’ll change. I’m just going to keep pushing along and hope that makes a difference.

Written: 9/17/05

Year 2

The first week of year two was MUCH easier than the first week of year one. Some of my colleagues told me that I would feel much more competent as I began year two and that is most certainly the case. I just feel more comfortable. I haven’t consciously changed anything over the first year, except for just going through the whole process once. That seems to have made all of the difference. I’m having several students for the second time, so there is familiarity there (for better or for worse). I have some lessons that I’ve created (although not all are good), and I can use them as a template for what I do this year. I feel more organized. I know my way around the school. I know where to find books and other resources. I have a system of distribution of student materials.

I just reread my entry from last year. Best of all, in the area of improvement, I don’t feel nearly as exhausted. I’m tired, yes, because my body did not go through the difficult process of teaching anything at all during the course of the summer. However, I am not nearly as exhausted as I was last year. I’ve been getting to bed at a reasonable hour, and just generally taking care of myself. That has certainly helped me to improve my energy level. This year I also made out two weeks of lesson plans for each class during the end of the summer. That meant that I no longer had to construct plans for each class the night before during the first week. There really aren’t any similarities between this year and the last. I’m sure more similarities will appear as the year drags on and I enter into unfamiliar territory, but, for right now, I feel as if I am in a very good position and I’m looking forward to whatever challenges this year may present to me.

Written: 9/9/06

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


I've decided. I'm going to use a blog to do my digital portfolio. It gives me everything I need, and I don't have to senselessly try to arrange and rearrange items on the page. The layout is simplicity itself, so that I can spend more time on the content, which is actually the most important element. I spent some time talking to Assistant Principal Mike Parent before leaving work today, and his comments made me excited about really teaching with technology. And he got me thinking about blogging. So now I'm going to use it.

Written: 11/27/07