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All of that being said, most of our current classes are currently running on an outdated model.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.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Cult of Negativity

I have been reading a lot of educational blogs recently. They are usually fascinating reading, punctuating by numerous new and progressive ideas. However, I have one problem with them. Teachers are much too negative. I don't mean negative in the sit-in-the-faculty-room-and-moan-about-everything sense, but I don think that we as a profession are much too hard on ourselves. Blogging has created a new generation of the self-reflective teacher. Now our thoughts have a place to go, that isn't just our head or a piece of paper that we will lose. Now, they can be posted to a public space, read by everyone and real discussions can ensue. This is a wonderful change, and lots of positive improvements will come from it. All of these people must work very hard to analyze their jobs the way that they do. Plus, they are always looking to improve and make changes.

I must admit that sometimes the blogs depress me, though. Far too often, the blogging teacher is much too hard on him or herself. I fall into the same trap sometimes. We want, not to make a difference, but to make THE difference in students' lives. We want them to love education. We want to embrace new means of teaching and learning. We want our lessons to be amazing. And guess what? It's not all going to happen overnight. We actually need to celebrate the small victories. If we try to do everything perfect all of the time, we will go absolutely crazy and never refresh or recharge for the next school day or the next school year. We have to learn to take baby steps and be satisfied that we accomplished something better over what we did the last time. Massive change will come, and with it self-satisfaction (and the feeling that we are still five years behind the times). But, we cannot forget to actually compliment ourselves, instead of always being so hard on all of the things we didn't do. We actually need to look at the things that we did.

I had to get that out there, perhaps as a meta-self-reflective piece after reading other blogs. This has become my outlet for my thoughts so that I won't forget them. And so I won't later be too hard on myself for not writing them down.

Turning on the Lights

Last Friday, I went to a workshop on technology at Montclair State University called "Turning on the Lights." As the title would imply, the workshop was all about using technology to invigorate students and the learning process, while simultaneously creating responsible and knowledgeable citizens of the digital age. I have a story to tell. I fear it may be convoluted. Please bear with me.

When I began working, just out of college, I took a job fixing Macintosh computers at a local high school. I actually never really enjoyed the tedious, repetitive aspects of the job (like fixing the computers), but I became fascinated with problem solving and using technology in the classroom. That fascination, and the education environment in general, helped push me to pursue my Master's Degree and begin a career as an English teacher. Ever since then, I have been fascinated with using technology in the classroom and in the learning process. Therefore, this conference was certainly something that interested me.

Dumont High School (where I'm currently teaching) is not the most progressive technology oriented school district in the world. Many web sites that other school districts use on a regular basis (YouTube, various Wiki sites, flickr, blogspot, etc.) are blocked by our internet filter for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, my colleagues and I become frustrated because we cannot even access many of the technological tools that we would like to use. Granted, there are still many that we can use (or we can get clever in what we implement and how), but there is a general feeling limited by many of our non-options.

In this case, however, I'd like to focus on YouTube in particular. My previous post features a great YouTube video from a Kansas State University Anthropology class. The presenter also showed this video at the Turning on the Lights conference. It would make for an amazing discussion piece with students of all ages. What does it mean to be a student? What are we as a school doing right? Doing wrong? Currently, we cannot use the video in Dumont, although many of us might want to present either this one or another in class. If given the opportunity, I think that we would be euphoric beyond all rationale.

The point of this post is not to attack the Dumont School District. Rather, it is to explore both sides of this complicated issue (Am I a bad writer because I just had to spell out the thesis statement?). Having worked in educational technology, I do have some (albeit dated) understanding of what it means to try to suppport an network designed for school use. This point was further refined at the end of Friday's conference. As I was leaving the center, I ran into one of my old bosses. He works in a very affluent school district that could basically afford any piece of technology that it wanted. I told him that he must feel very privileged. While we wait for a crumb (either in equipment or the disappearance of the internet stop sign), teachers who work with him must be like kids in a candy store, I reasoned. He told me that was absolutely not the case.

He said that, in affluent districts, teachers become very accustomed to just being able to get whatever technology they need for class. If they want to show a YouTube video, they do. If they want to project something at a moment's notice, they do. If they want to film a lesson, sign a form, no problem. The issue, as he told me, is created when something breaks or does not work correctly. Sadly, the culture is such that everyone just begins to expect that everything will work, all of the time. My former boss explained to me that he had to block YouTube for three days earlier this school year, because the network needed maintenance and could not support the traffic. He said that teachers nearly crucified him. How could they teacher their classes without it?

This certainly highlights a digital divide. It also demonstrates poor prioritizing. Technology becomes the gimmick, THE way to teach. If one can't have it, then what good is teaching. Balance must exist somewhere. Some schools (Dumont) currently have very little available technology. Others have a ton. Yet everyone complains. Too much, too little, why is it broken, why can't we use it, etc., etc., etc. I needed to write this post to remind myself that technology is not the most important thing. Learning is. As long as someone learns something, the day has not been wasted, no matter how great that "other" lesson might have been. If I ever get access to the YouTube videos I want to show in class and the one laptop per child, I do not want to carry on and moan like a spoiled baby if something stops working. I need to always remember this exchange and what it was like to teach (I hope effectively) without having that same amount of access.

If that isn't the most Dickensian of blog posts, I'm sure nothing is.

A Vision of Students Today

Two words for now: fascinating and sobering.

More to come later.

Just watch.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Milgram Experiment

At the end of each year in my English 3 CP (Junior) classes, I teach Night by Elie Wiesel. This text, for obvious reasons, usually grabs the students' attention and holds it for the duration of the book. In addition to Night, I also use two supplemental materials, in an attempt to make some kind of sense of the atrocities of that time period. As a class, we read two chapters of Christopher Browning's excellent book, Ordinary Men, about civilian Germans who become mass murderers and the possible reasons behind this awful transformation. Ordinary Men works very well in tandem with Night.

I also show video of the Milgram experiment. Originally, I wanted to find a film about the original experiment. Failing that, I decided to settle for ABC News' recreation. Once again, this really captures student attention, and prompts some interesting discussions. In my opinion, this experiment is also something that every educated person should know.

I had found the ABC News recreation of the experiment on Google Video. Sadly, it's been removed from the site. However, in my search, I did come across this video of the original.

Edit: This video has also been removed. That's the problem with web-based video; there's is no sense of permanence. Everything is here today, gone tomorrow. That leads into the discussion of whether we should own things or just "rent" them using subscription models. And it's a topic for another day, another post...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Technology in a Useful Fashion

The major problem with technology in the classroom is that very few people know how to use it effectively (how's that for stating the obvious?). Whether it's the teachers I remember from high school who could not figure out how to press 'play' on the VCR, or students simply reading from their PowerPoint Presentations, no one is learning anything new from the use of technology in these instances. I think that to make technology in the classroom useful, we all have to change our thinking about it.

We can no longer just "bring" technology into the classroom, in the form of a television set on wheels, or a laptop and projector that gets set up for the day. We need to infuse it into the course itself. Technology should not just kill time for an easy day (the traditional, "I'm tired today, I'll show a film") nor should it be something to which we expose students every once in a while. Technology surrounds their everyday existence. Sometimes, yes, they are lost under the crush of it, but we need to find a compromise. Is it any wonder that they are bored with traditional school, when life outside the classroom is so exhilarating? They have text messages, cell phone calls, camera phones, flickr and facebook accounts, video games, etc., etc., etc. There are certainly ways to integrate some of these things into the classroom.

We cannot abandon traditional skills, that much is for certain. Traditional reading and writing skills still run the world, although technological creativity is no longer too far behind. Therefore, the emphasis on the classroom should be focused on using technology in meaningful real-world ways that will still pass on the older essential skills to our students. In fact, maybe these revised methods of teaching will help to make our students more involved and interested, thereby actually raising their abilities. It is certainly worth a shot.

There are lots of variables to consider, and each school district has its own limitations when it comes to technology (Dumont certainly has theirs), but there are things each and every teacher can do to promote technological literacy and creativity. In the long run, I believe that an integration of new methods and ideas will only help to reinvigorate both teachers and students, and perhaps we can finally find useful methods of incorporating a projector and a powerpoint presentation into our classes.

This post has taken on much more of a preachy, moralizing tone than I wished, and I still think I'm just stating the obvious. But, I'm going to run with it anyway, as I have lots of technologically influenced ideas that I'm going to begin detailing in the coming posts. Stay tuned.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Start of Year #4

Amazingly, the 2008-2009 school year will be my fourth in teaching. It will also be my first year with tenure. I cannot believe how much time has passed between when I started and now. But, this is not a post to reflect on what has come before. Instead, I'd like to focus on things I would like to improve for the new school year. I'm going to break down my goals by class. Then, I will revisit them in June and evaluate myself to demonstrate how I did.

Goals for English 1 CP
Overall, I really enjoy teaching this class. I've only had it for two years, but my lesson plans have taken great strides and I enjoy working with the ninth graders very much. I find them willing and energetic, which makes for a fun environment. On the whole, I'm pleased with what I've achieved so far, but here is a list of things I'd like to improve upon in the immediate future.

1). Improve Poetry instruction by making it more meaningful and accessible.
2). Engage students in more meaningful discussions relating readings to their modern lives.
3). Teach The Odyssey in a more cohesive, understandable fashion.
4). Introduce some research element to the Comparative Mythology unit.
5). Spend more time discussing modern myths.
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.

Goals for English 3 CP
This will be my fourth year with this particular course, so I am very familiar with the texts by this point in time. I think that the plans for the texts during the beginning of the year are quite strong, but there are some gaps in lessons that occur later.

1). Read sections of The Prince during MacBeth and use them to analyze the characters of MacBeth and Lady MacBeth.
2). Find a better way to teach vocabulary.
3). Create more interesting lessons around The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron.
4). Find a research paper topic that is interesting and challenging.
5). Find a year-long project idea that encourages reflection without being overly confusing or cumbersome.

Goals for SRA English
This class has met with great success. Of all of the students who have regularly attended this class, all of them have passed the New Jersey state Language Arts requirements for graduation. Something I am doing must be working. However, there is always room for improvement.

1). Differentiate assignments better based upon a particular student's needs.
2). Stay organized with all of the paperwork needed to run this class.
3). Continue to positively reinforce all student work.

General Goals

1). Create better methods to teach and evaluate vocabulary skills.
2). Encourage students to become more proficient at answering open-ended questions.
3). Do not leave so much work for the end of each marking period or for the end of the school year.

Problems With Technology

I ran into two unforeseen problems in the maintenance of my blogs. One of these problems I have solved, the other I have not.

When I first established this blog, I set up a free file sharing account at a website known as MediaMax. Using the MediaMax free service, I would be able to upload my school documents and link to them from this site for others to download. This enabled me to provide easy access to the array of PDF files and the podcast that reside within my various posts. However, within the last few months, MediaMax changed nearly everything about its philosophy. The website changed its name to The Linkup and switched over to a completely paid system. Given the fact that I was using the free service, all of my files were removed. This left me a with a bunch of dead links on my blog, not where I wanted to be after putting in a lot of time and research to set up the links properly.

I did not want to pay for the new service on The Linkup, as that totally went against my philosophy on using freely provided services (hence the reliance on Google for this whole endeavor). I had to find something different. I uploaded all of the files (except the podcast) to my Google Documents page, but I could not successfully link to them from my blog. I eventually settled on a free file sharing service called, and all of the files are now accessible to all interested parties.

The other technology problem is still, sadly, without a solution. A short time after establishing this blog, I set up a second one for use with my classes. On it, I would detail my class assignments and post handouts for each day. About two months after setting it up, however, Dumont High School's administration announced an edict stating that teachers will not be allowed to maintain web sites outside of district control. I had to stop updating the site. All of the previously entered text is still posted for posterity, but I lost my method of sharing my day's activities for students and parents to read outside of school. I understand Dumont High School's concern for student safety in the public domain, especially in the days of internet predators and hackers. But, I still don't know how to replace this service. I think the school is struggling with this, as well, as the administrators are still searching for an in-house equivalent to the options teachers have for creating content on the world wide web.

The most important message of this post is that using technology is not a simple matter of tapping some buttons and watching magic happen. There are many different concerns and problems, some of them within our control, some of them unforeseen. Trying to get out in front of a new movement in education will obviously have some early-adopter problems. I was happy and lucky to solve one of them (although I currently have no contingency if changes, as well), but I am still searching for a solution to the second one. I will post if there are any new developments.

Intentional Neglect

I've left this blog alone for quite awhile. This was done intentionally. Initially, I established this site to use as a reflection of my teaching experiences, and as a tenure requirement at Dumont High School. When I left it in January, the blog was in its final form for submission to the tenure review committee. I did not wish to change anything for until the tenure process had been completed.

Now that I have earned my tenure, it is time to start updating this site again. I am proud of what has already been documented in these posts, and I look forward to the new reflections that I will create in the time to come.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Mr. McGuirk's Class Blog

This blog serves as my educational portfolio. It details my experiences through my first three years of teaching. I have also begun a second blog, one that covers my day-to-day classes. This class blog is a repository of materials. Students who are absent can see what they missed in class, and download the appropriate materials. Parents can see what homework their children should be doing. I am all in favor of anything that opens up communication between home and school and gives students a better chance to do their very best. I think that's the purpose of this second blog, which should remain updated on a daily basis.

To view it, please go to

Written: 1/5/08

Problem Solved?

I firmly believe that the easiest way for anyone to learn vocabulary is to read. Whenever I open a new piece of literature, I see words for the first time. This gives me incentive to check their definitions, and to try to add them to my permanent knowledge base. When I was a teenager, I learned new words by reading books, magazines, newspapers, internet stories, and even the liner notes to compact discs. Because of this association between reading and learning, I strongly encourage my students to read whenever they can spare a moment. It will certainly improve their language (and their writing) skills.

Reading is just another entertaiment option to many of these students, however. They have sports, recitals, video games, text messages, DVDs, cable boxes, and the telephone, among others. In an era when technology is winning over everything else (which is part of my reasoning for typing a blog instead of a traditional portfolio), how do we as teachers encourage students to learn vocabulary?

I'm not sure that word lists work. Sure, students memorize definitions for their quizzes, but I don't know that they retain those meanings. The best compromise I've found between vocabulary and technology comes in the form of a website: The concept of the website is simple: if you correctly determine a word's definition, the site's hosts donate twenty grains of rice to help end world hunger. All of the definitions are one word long, so they essentially serve as synonyms for the words in question. Since dictionary definitions often end up further confusing students, this option seems perfect. The site is also incredibly addictive. Watching the rice pile up in the bowl provides incentive to see just how much one can donate. The website also ranks one's vocabulary level (maximum of 50), which further provokes a person's competitive spirit.

I have used a few times in class to do quick vocabulary reviews. The students seem to enjoy it. I hope to use it more in the future, and maybe even work it into my lesson plans, or to set a goal for monthly rice donations. The website appeals to the humanitarian and the teacher in all of us. Perhaps it could be the answer to boosting vocabulary in the age of the internet and its associated distractions.

National Public Radio even ran a feature on the website's history and future goals. To read it, click here.

Written: 1/5/08

Losing My Voice

Last week, I taught for an entire day without having the use of my voice. On Wednesday, December 19th, I could feel myself losing my ability to speak as the school day ended. Within a few hours, I could talk no louder than a whisper.

I did not want to miss a day of school. The week was almost over, and the Winter holidays rapidly approaching. To stay home sick would, in the end, mean more work for me, as my lesson plans would be disrupted and I would need to create activities for a substitute teacher. I decided to forge into class and do my best without my voice.

Thankfully, Thursday, December 20th was a "B" day. On "B" days, I have my smallest class load, teaching only three of my seven periods. My first class was my SRA class, which involves one on one instruction. I made it through that class easily. As I sat next to my students to assist them, I whispered. They could still hear me and the class essentially proceeded as usual. The day did not turn interesting until my freshmen classes came in later in the day.

In my freshmen English 1 CP classes, we were reading the end of Act III of Romeo & Juliet. I like to have the class read the scenes together, out loud. I stop them periodically to check for understanding and to stress certain important elements of each scene. Sometimes, the class and I will work together to put the "actors" into proper positions for the specific situation. These methods all help the students to visualize what would otherwise be a difficult text to understand. They are also all useless without a voice. I had to think of something else.

When class began, I wrote notes to the class on the blackboard, mainly about my temporary disability. They asked me questions and I answered in writing. I wrote that we would attempt to run the class as normally as we could. They rose to the challenge. I had zero discipline issues that day. I don't normally have many of those problems, but they really acted as the most mature first year high school students in the world. They took complete control of the class and made sure it flowed smoothly.

We read our scenes from Romeo & Juliet as usual. Instead of asking them questions, I wrote them down on a piece of paper. They discussed the answers, and I gave occasional feedback in the form of a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. This worked well for review and simple understanding. However, when the scene finished, they still did not understand some of the nuances of the scene. Somehow, they needed to have a stronger visual sense of what was happening.

After we finished reading, I asked the students to summarize the scene in their own words. During this time, I wrote out paraphrased dialogue from the play onto blank sheets of paper. I was going to perform a silent movie. First, I had them read their summaries. Then, I went into action, playing all of the characters from the scene. I used various props to illustrate different characters (pens, water bottles, my winter hat, etc.) and I held up the dialogue sheets at appropriate times. The plan worked. By the end of the class, the students understood what happened in the scenes and why those events were important to the overall story. Needless to say, I was very proud of them.

Teaching without a voice was one of the hardest things I have done. But, it was also exhilarating. I viewed this issue as a challenge, one that I could certainly overcome. So, I put much effort into achieving that goal. The idea to perform the silent movie made me excited in a way that only the best spontaneous ideas can. The students laughed along, but they also really understood what was happening.

In some ways, the loss of my voice has also become a bonding experience with the students. Every day since we've been back from the Holiday break, at least one of my students asks me if I have my voice. I always say yes and smile. I think that they enjoyed the unusual circumstances and unique class as much as I appreciated the ability to overcome an obstacle that probably would have seemed overwhelming earlier in my teaching career.

Written: 1/5/08

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Open-Ended Questions

As a high school English teacher, it is my responsibility to evaluate students' reading comprehension skills and to try to encourage them to think about literature at more critical levels. As a teacher of high school juniors, I am also tasked with helping my students to prepare for the language arts sections of the New Jersey High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). These are all large responsibilities and they certainly felt overwhelming during my first two years of teaching.

During those two trying years, I felt pretty certain about how to check for reading comprehension: assign quizzes after each night's reading homework. During my first two years of teaching, students completed quizzes like the one you will find here for Acts I and II of MacBeth. All of the quizzes featured straightforward multiple choice questions. They were easy to grade and, for the most part, easy for students to complete correctly. Although these quizzes do check for reading comprehension, they never require students to demonstrate any of the higher orders of thought, like analysis and synthesis. All of the questions simply ask for recall. Essentially, during the first two years of teaching, my classwork followed a pattern for each text that we covered in class. Students would read for homework, then come in the next day and complete a reading check quiz. After enough repetition of that pattern, they would finish the text and I would assign higher order thinking questions, usually in the form of a test or a persuasive essay. This method also served as my system of HSPA preparation.

Occasionally, instead of giving the students a reading check quiz to complete, I would assign them a written homework assignment to complete along with the previous night's reading. Then, at the beginning of the next class, I would walk around and check the assignment during the Do-Now activity. Homework assigned in such fashion is wide open to cheating. Students would wait until homeroom or lunch time of the due date, then simply copy someone else's paper. They would simply hope that I did not notice. I caught a sizable amount of identical papers and assigned zeros accordingly. The zeros don't solve the problem, though, they just add to the frustration. Additionally, there is the bigger problem that students simply are not learning because they are not completing the work.

By April of my second year of teaching, I had grown frustrated with both my homework assignments and my quizzes. I needed to create a better system. Enter the Guided Question. Each night, for every reading assignment, I gave the students a guided question. I asked them to read with the guided question in mind, then take notes on the question. At the beginning of the following class period, they would be responsible for writing out the answer on a piece of paper and submitting it for a grade. I graded the questions on a 3-2-1-0 scale, with 3 being a perfect score. This eliminated the cheating, and it forced students to actually complete their homework assignments. That was an improvement. The questions also forced the students to think on higher levels, another improvement. However, my grading rubric was poor, and the students still were not getting dedicated HSPA preparation. Therefore, despite the new system, I remained dissatisfied.

At the beginning of my third year, I finally put a new system into place, one that fit all of my needs, and fixed the outstanding issues. I changed the Guided Questions to Open-Ended Questions. I modeled these questions directly after the ones found on the HSPA test. They follow a simple format:

Stem of the Question which provides some basic background information:

-- A recall question, one which asks the students to IDENTIFY some elements from the reading.

-- An analysis question, one which asks the students to EXPLAIN the effects of some element from the reading.

The quote "Use information from the [text] to support your response." (On the HSPA, the writers use "selection" instead of "text.")

This simple format proved to be an immense help to the structure of my class, and to my ability to do my own job. I could ask one of these questions for every reading assignment. Students would come into class the next day and complete the question as the Do-Now activity. I would collect the responses and assign homework credit. The rubric was ready made for me, as I used the NJ HSPA Open-Ended Question rubric. Students were now preparing for the HSPA, demonstrating reading comprehension, and applying higher order thinking skills. What a beautiful solution to a complicated problem. If you click here, you can view the improved 2007-2008 MacBeth Open-Ended questions.

This system worked so well, I even adapted it into film viewing guides. Below, you can download the 2006-2007 viewing guide to the film Raisin in the Sun. Then, you can compare it to the much improved 2007-2008 viewing guide for the same film. The Open-Ended Question format really helped to bring a great degree of structure to my class, while simultaneously helping me to meet my educational goals.

Raisin in the Sun 2006-2007 Viewing Guide

Raisin in the Sun 2007-2008 Viewing Guide

Written: 12/15/07

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Beowulf Lesson Plans

I am going to do something different for this post. I'm going to give an audio tour of my Beowulf lesson plans for all three of my years of teaching. To listen, you'll first want to download and open the .pdf files of each year's lesson plans, which can be found below:

Beowulf 2005-2006 Lesson Plans

Beowulf 2006-2007 Lesson Plans

Beowulf 2007-2008 Lesson Plans

Then, you'll want to download the podcast, which can be found here:

Beowulf Lesson Plans Podcast

There is a very real danger that this post could be regarded as a gimmick. I am very aware of that danger. I did this recording because it is, in some ways, representative of the future of education. All of the students are running around these days with iPods in their ears all of the time or with their thumbs tapping out incorrectly spelled "TXT" messages. As educators, we fight this. But, the bottom line is that technology will win out in the end. It always does. So, why not try to embrace something new and see what we can do with it? This podcast, as well as this blog in general, is my attempt to fuse an old method of reflective thinking with a modern method of transmission.

Speaking and listening engage different parts of one's brain than do writing and reading, so this will be an interesting exercise. Some may prefer the audio tour, others may have wished I just wrote the entire reflection, just like all of the other posts.

(photo of me at home recording the podcast in front of the Dumont High School-supplied MacBook)

Written: 12/5/07
Podcast Started: 12/5/07
Podcast Finished: 1/2/08


The only time I am nervous while teaching is when I am about to be observed. I am not nervous when I am being observed, only when the ominous observation still looms in the future. I always want everything in my observation to be "just right." I want my students to be on task and with me every step of the way. I want everyone to be on time. I want myself to be clear and concise, but also engaging and entertaining. The desire for perfection definitely strains the nerves, regardless of how much I am willing to admit to it.

Once the lesson starts, I am back in my element, and I have no trouble conducting it. But, it can certainly be difficult trying to get that great lesson in place. I think I would feel less nervous if someone observed more than one lesson at a time. If a person watched me teach an entire book, say, Of Mice and Men, then every lesson would have its context and that individual could see how one of my ideas would flow (or not) into the next. But, when one has but a single shot at a time, he wants it to be the best shot he could possibly take.

My first observation occurred on September 29, 2005 in an English 2 CP class. I was teaching the Crucible and I was startlingly nervous. My objective for the class: students should be able to list the reasons why John Proctor is imprisoned and charged with witchcraft. The objective is passable, although I don't know that I would still write an objective like that, unless out of absolute necessity. I also developed some interesting activities, including one in which I asked the students to think of reasons they would lie and another in which I wanted the class to rank the characters according to morality. The serious problem here is that the activities do not closely relate to the lesson objective. At this point in my career, I was not thinking about a single class as a whole unit, one in which everything should work together. I just wanted to be impressive with my excellent ability to think of great activities and relate them to books. The problem: the lesson really did not strike anyone as impressive. It was simply incomplete. To view my own (immediate) evaluation of that lesson, please click on the picture embedded within the text of this entry. To read my post-observation evaluation, please click here.

Fast forward two years, to my observation of one week ago. For this observation, I conducted my lesson on Kurt Vonnegut and "The Lie." This is a truly polished and impressive lesson (for the history behind this lesson, please click here). It is everything that I wanted that first observation to be. Of course, it took me two years to arrive at this point. Nothing comes without seriously strenuous work. For this lesson, I had to put all of the pieces, from the activities to the objective to the assessments, together as one. Reading the post-observation evaluation (click here), the differences between this lesson and my first observation are night and day. I am certainly not the same teacher now that I was when I started two years ago. And that is all for the best.

Written: 10/2/07

Student Evaluations

While sorting through my portfolio materials the other day, I found copies of student evaluations (click to view) that I handed out at the end of last school year. I thought that I would add a reflection about these precious documents.

In college and in graduate school, I always felt as if I had a voice when it came to evaluating my professors. At the end of each course, they always gave each student an evaluation form. With it, the students could rate the professor's performance in the class. I don't know if anyone ever read the forms or took them seriously, but I felt as if I actually had a chance to express my opinions of the course and professor, openly and honestly.

I wanted to do the same thing for my students. The entire school system is currently based around teachers evaluating the students. Sure, school administrators review each teacher's performance. Yet the students are the only ones who actually spend time with the teacher (in our case) three out of every four days, while the teacher is actually, well, teaching. Wouldn't that make the students the best evaluators? Skeptics may feel that this is a responsibility with which we should not entrust students. Children will not take this seriously, they say. I disagree. I feel that if I, as a teacher, show respect for my students, then they will show respect for me, whether they like my class or not. At the very least they will provide that for which I am asking: honesty.

I did read every single completed evaluation form that I received. I kept the students' comments in mind, and I will try to focus on areas of criticism. I have a great affection for students who really offer many comments, as they are the ones who are truly sharing a piece of themselves with me. All of their identities are anonymous in these evaluations, so I have no idea who has written what, but I always appreciate extensive feedback. The downloadable evaluations are largely positive (although, in my mind, every form came positive), but they were chosen on the basis of the thoroughness of the evaluations.

Written: 9/17/07

The First Week of Year #3

I actually do not have much to write. I am quite satisfied with the first week of school. I guess I am starting to feel like I know how to handle the opening of a new school year. I completed all of my photocopies for the first two weeks of school during August. At the end of last month, I put all of the copies in boxes and placed the boxes in the closet of my classroom. This year, I am going to demand that students use three-ring binders to help organization, so the copies are even hole-punched for them.

I also know exactly what I want to to do for the first several days of class. I have complete lesson plans for the first two and a half weeks of school. Things may change, but I can use these as a template to guide where I want to go.

I have also decided to make my objectives a point of emphasis this year. Every day, students will have a written objective for the class period. At the end of the day, they can evaluate whether or not we reached the objective or need to revisit it during the next class period. This will also help keep my class on task. The fact that I started doing it the first week of school is a wonderful addition to my class. The students will get in the habit of writing out objectives and I will have a new and valuable class routine. I want my class to have focused procedures so that I can spend more time on lessons and higher order thinking and less time on classroom management. They should know what to expect every day and I believe that will truly improve the overall flow of the class.

I feel very positive as I begin this new year of teaching (an important one, year number three), and I believe that many of my improvements will come to the fore as I continue writing for my portfolio.

Written: 9/8/07

SRA Persuasive Essays

When I took over the SRA class about one month into last school year, I had many materials provided for me. I had a workbook from which I could assign exercises. The students already had classwork folders and a set routine. In some ways, I became a caretaker of the class. Yes, I helped the students, and sat with them and helped them to revisit and revise answers to questions. In a larger sense, however, I simply followed a formula that had been been previously provided for me and was, in a sense, individual-agnostic.

During my time in that class, however, I noticed a dearth of persuasive essay prompts. The students could work on the prompts found in the workbook, but there were only about three or four of them. My personal stamp on the class became the persuasive essays that I assigned to the students as practice. When I first realized that there were not many essay prompts, I thought of a few on the spot to help students who needed more practice. Later, I wrote down the prompts, so that I could choose from a list, rather than having to rethink each time. Finally, over the last month, I explicitly fleshed out my prompts and typed them into a tidy packet. I will make photocopies of this packet. On opening day of school, one copy of each of the prompts will be in every student's folder. Now, no one should be wanting for any more practice writing prompts.

To download and view a copy of the complete SRA persuasive essay packet, please click here.

Written: 8/17/07

Research Papers

I believe that one of the most difficult aspects of my job is trying to teach students how to write research papers. The entire process can be quite intimidating, especially for students who are just learning the steps necessary for successfully completing the project. Students usually do not thrill to this opportunity, either. The paper is completed out of obligation, not any form of excitement. Needless to say, all of these factors add up to make the research process one of the most difficult during the course of any school year.

Each year that I have taught, I have tried to improve my methods for teaching the research paper. My first year, I had no idea what lay ahead of me, and I simply worked with what I remembered from my high school and college classes. Not having any feedback from actual high school students, it was honestly the best that I could do. During my second year, I tried to really address the concerns I had from my first year. I tried to help guide the students through the process, by repeating the important concepts and giving them opportunities to see models of correct papers.

I have not felt that I have been a total success in my teaching of the research process. I still receive papers that are quite messy and others that are obviously first drafts. Occasionally, however, I do come across papers that make me feel as if I am doing something right. I have created links to three papers, that, while not perfect, do serve as examples of student learning and application. The links to the papers are below:

Ambition in MacBeth

Ambition in The Pelican Brief

Corruption in The Pelican Brief

These papers are all excellent examples of high school student texts and do, to a certain extent, make me proud of the job that I have done in trying to teach the research process.

I do not, unfortunately, have any examples of weaker papers. I never thought to scan copies of poor papers. I cannot exactly say why, although I do intend to use the above papers as class samples during my third year of teaching. The poor papers would be a good tool to document my use of comments as part of the teaching process, but that aspect will need to wait for another day, if I choose to upload such a paper at all.

Going into my third year of teaching, I also created two documents to help students with their research papers. The links are below:

Writing Reference Guide

Writing the Perfect Research Paper

Finally, I also advise students who are struggling to pay a visit to the OWL at Purdue University, as the site has excellent writing tips.

Written: 8/8/07