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