Slice of Life: Choice in Assessment

Slice of Life

As we finish up our Romeo & Juliet unit, I had some ideas of what we could do. Some smaller-scale type of Epic Romeo & Juliet Project? A test? An essay? Re-write and modernize some of the scenes? A debate? What do we do?

The thing is, we had a week left before the marking period ended. The snow and cold days we had earlier in the year were taking their toll on our schedule. While I hate using that as any sort of curriculum guideline, our quarters don’t lump together at the end of the year; they’re weighted equally. So if we learn something in one quarter, but get assessed on it (and graded on it) in another, it can have significant impact on their semester grade. In an unfair way. So we needed something, and we needed it quickly. Long-term projects were out. I needed a fair way to assess everyone in a relatively short amount of time.

So I asked the students.

First, I gave them a task: in pairs, come up with 3 assessments, and create a pros and cons list for each of them. From this, I made a sign-up sheet.

And they chose.

About half elected to go with a test. This is the safe option. They take tests of some sort in many of their courses, so they’re comfortable with the format. It’s a one-day thing, after a few days preparing in class.

My favorite part of all of this are the students who took this opportunity to stretch themselves. They could all take a test, certainly. They’d probably do just fine.

But where’s the fun in that? Where’s the exploration? So some students who don’t usually speak up: they’re going to debate if Romeo & Juliet is a tragedy or a love story. Using rules of formal debate. Others who don’t often challenge the norm are re-writing some of the major scenes as if it takes place in modern day. One of our foreign exchange students went home for the week, so she took advantage of the chance to write a paper.

And nobody — NOBODY — is complaining about any of the work they’re doing, no matter how much it is.

In a world heading more and more towards standardization of everything, I love choice.


Slice of Life: A Brush with Greatness

Slice of Life

This past November, I was in the back of a large session room at NCTE. I was planning on attending the next two sessions that were held in that room. In fact, I was talking with the presenter of the session of the one after the one we were about to experience about a gameplan to make quick changes to the environment to fit her and her colleague’s presentation more suitably.

Many people were coming in and out, and, as I can’t help but do, I would glance up at just about each and every one of them. Nearly all walked on by without noticing my existence. Some made quick eye contact and we exchanged a smile or a quick “hello.” Hugs were given to those whom I knew (and likely hadn’t seen in months — if ever!).

Then one woman came in, and she was looking around the space really quickly, as if she wasn’t sure this was the room she was supposed to be in. You know the look. A quick glance side-to-side, eyes scanning. Totally in control, yet also questioning, seeking. As I was looking up, she caught my eyes, and asked me if this was such and such a room. I told her that no, it wasn’t, but that room was nearby, and I gave her directions. She thanked me, and walked to the room she was looking for.

I looked back up at Jillian Heise and Beth Shaum, with whom I was talking. Something had happened. Their voices stopped working. Their jaws stopped working! They just stared at me, mouths agape. What had I done? Did I give terrible directions?

“Do you know who that was?”

“Who, that woman?”

“Brian. That was Nancie Atwell.”

WHAT. NO. I had just seen her speak earlier this year! Surely I would recognize one of the greatest minds of English language arts education. . .right? I mean, I use the methods espoused In The Middle and Lessons that Change Writers nearly every day in my instruction! Her books remain standards for language arts education, 10, 20, and 30 years after their initial publication dates. She has inspired an entire generation of teachers, changing the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions of children across the United States — across the world!

And all I had to say to her was, “It’s around the corner to the right.”

In some ways, I’m glad I didn’t recognize her. I’m sure she is used to being a celebrity at NCTE, and it must have been nice to just ask for directions and get them, and not have a 20 minute discussion about how she changed someone’s life. But she did. She’s changed so many lives.

And somehow, she’s the one who thanked me.

No, Ms. Atwell. Thank you. Thank you for everything.

Today, Nancie Atwell was awarded the first-ever Global Teacher Prize. I can’t imagine a more deserving educator. She plans to donate her entire prize — $1M USD — to the school she founded. That is the level of her dedication to her students. Could she use the money? I don’t know. Could the school use the money? Probably. But just the fact that she’s already decided to make that donation, to invest back in education, tells me of the type of woman she is. This woman, in control, yet questioning, seeking answers.

Slice of Life: Books Change Lives

Slice of Life

Today, I was only at school for about 20 minutes of class before my body decided to reject everything I had put in it this morning. I was sick. I had to go home.

However, that 20 minutes was long enough. One of my students said to me, “You’ll never guess what happened!” Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the spirits to joke, so I asked what it was. “I finished the book last night!”

This book was the first print book this student had finished all year. Audio books work well for him, but print has proven to be difficult. The smile on his face wrapped all the way around the weekend.

Then, it got even more magical. In his hands, he had a copy of his favorite book of all time. It was at the top of his 6-star book list. He knows I have not read it. And he said “Because you gave me a book that changed my life, I want to give you a book that will change yours.”

Look at those words again. A book. Changed his life. And he admitted it. And then, because he felt a connection with me as a reader, he wanted to return the favor.

There could be no greater gift a student can give a teacher. These are the days that, even though I’m sick as a dog, I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Slice of Life: Why Do We Do It? Revisited

Slice of Life

Today, I received an e-mail from a parent. Out of respect for the privacy of this parent and my student, I’m not going to go into details. But it was one of those e-mails that just validated everything that I do as an English teacher. It showed me, in no uncertain terms, that what I do works. This is why I do this. This is why so many of us do this.

Not for the e-mails, though those are nice.

We do this because it works.

It freaking works.

I hope you all get e-mails like this one, too. It makes all the difference. Maybe you should go send one.

Slice of Life: The Bachelor

So many things to talk about today. Now that I’m thinking of what to blog about each day, I find there are so many things!

But today, my wife and I get to watch the finale of The Bachelor. We’re watching it right now, in fact. I can’t wait to see what happens. I hope he makes a smart choice. Enjoy the evening, everyone!

Slice of Life: A Long Day, A Short Post

Slice of Life

Today was quite long. It was my first day at work after the Daylight Saving Time switch, which is always killer. I expected my students to be tired, as I was, but they adjusted by overcaffeinating themselves. So that was fun.

Then, when I got home, my wife and I had to head out nearly immediately to our first prenatal class. We have 3 of these, and then another “reunion” course after all our due dates pass. This was helpful, and I like learning all the things we’ll need to know to prepare for our baby. But it just makes for a long day. I’m thankful today for a comfortable bed and an enjoyable book. I’m going to need those to gear up for the day tomorrow.

Slice of Life: Unscheduled Scheduled Day Off

Slice of Life

I’m going to start and say that this post will probably seem odd to public school teachers. It seems odd to me, and I’ve been a private school teacher for 7 of my 8 years teaching. Oh well.

Today was a scheduled day of school. Until Friday of last week. On Friday, it was announced that my school met our fundraising goal and we would be rewarded with Monday off.

Wait, what? We paid for a day off of school?

In some ways, yes.

Being a private school, there isn’t a lot of money in the bank (I know a lot of people think private schools are rolling in the dough, but I assure you, it is the exact opposite). One of the things that is both a benefit and a drawback is that our money is generally not earmarked for things. Sometimes, we will have money given to use specifically for scholarships for low-income families, or technology, or whatever the donor may desire. However, it’s usually just part of a general fund. This goes to pay for all the things schools have as expenses: teacher salary, building maintenance, supplies, technology upgrades, etc.

The upside to this is that if we have some extra money, we can do some cool things with it without worrying about a ton of approval (the school board has their say, but there’s one hoop to jump through, not 3 or 4). So if we want to buy some couches and put together a student lounge, we can do that. If we need to upgrade our computers, we can save up and do that. If we need new uniforms, we can do that.

The downside is that sometimes, things get put way on the back burner. Without funds being earmarked, which comes first: new uniforms or new whiteboards? How can we pay for our computers to be replaced and upgraded when a pipe bursts and we have to fix that first? Where does Wi-Fi come into play (we just got wireless in the building this year)? How important is it that we have the athletics programs we have, considering we have to rent out the playing fields from the community public schools? It’s tough when the money isn’t there. Since our tuition is a couple thousand dollars per student less than the funding public schools in the area receive, it’s a pretty constant concern. We bridge this gap as best we can by having lower salaries, fewer administrators, and through donations and fundraisers.

So when our students are able to raise over $10,000 for the school by selling $25-$100 ad space in our yearbook to businesses in the community, it’s something we’re happy with. We will be able to use that money to directly benefit the school at large. Perhaps rewarding the students for accomplishing something that benefits the school with a day off of school is a bit. . .well, interesting thinking at best, it’s what we went with. I hope the students are using it to their benefit as much as I am (I wrote quite a bit in a new work-in-progress!).

I believe in our public schools. But I also believe in our private schools. I believe in educators and education. While the day off is an intriguing incentive, it’s nice to know we can do a little bit more for our school and for our students because of their efforts.

Slice of Life: MRA Friday Night

Slice of Life

The Michigan Reading Association Annual Conference is one of my favorite conferences of the year. It’s only a state-wide conference, but it attracts educators and professionals from all across the country. It’s a great weekend to reconnect and recharge, and at the end of March, we all need that extra boost to push us through the rest of the school year with our expected levels of awesomeness.

This year, Colby Sharp and Lisa Rivard have put together a Pure Michigan Kick-Off to MRA on Friday night. It has Lip Sync battles (think Jimmy Fallon), Ignite-style talks (featuring the best of Michigan’s educators. . .and me. I don’t know how I snuck in there), a cash bar, and just a great way to open up the conference. If you’re going to be at MRA this year, Friday night is CAN’T-MISS! And it’s FREE! Colby put together a website with all the relevant information. I can’t wait to see you all there!

Slice of Life: We Have a Crib!

Slice of Life

As some of you may be aware, my wife and I are expecting our first child this summer. Like most first-time parents, I assume, we have spent a lot of time reading up on what to do, mentally preparing ourselves, but also physically preparing our home for a baby.

We were recently gifted a crib to help us be ready, and I spent some time this morning putting it together. It was a lot of fun; I enjoy doing this sort of thing.

Of course, not everything went perfectly, because that’s just not how life works. Because the house is in Canada, and this was a gift from my American family, we actually had to make the purchase ourselves and then be reimbursed. This helped save on foreign purchase fees and obnoxious shipping costs.

When we made the purchase, the store was out of stock. The warehouse was out of stock. They could have ordered one, but it may have taken up to 4-6 weeks to get in to the warehouse — and then perhaps another 4-6 weeks to have sent to the store. That was cutting it a little close, so we asked what else they could do. After looking at a few other options we didn’t like as much, we decided to go with the initial offer: we would purchase the floor model.

The thing is, we didn’t quite realize how tall the crib is. At least not compared to our car. Some straps were purchased, and we took home a disassembled floor model crib home on the top of our car. Carefully.

But it made it home. Then, while putting it together, I got to the last step. I looked at the part, and I noticed the “right” and “left” were labeled on the opposite side from all the other crib parts. But no matter; it’s mislabeled. I’ll just assemble it the way it actually goes. So I thought.

Turns out the store actually made a small mistake when they put it together for the display, and it wasn’t mislabeled. Some parts were just in the wrong spot. But after realizing that, I was able to fix this mistake and put it all together properly.

And now: tada! Habemus crib!

 photo (4)

Slice of Life: Teaching with The Bachelor

Slice of Life

One of my favorite projects I do with my students is the Ridiculously Sweet Edgar Allan Poe Project (RSEAPP). The direction, when it really gets boiled down, is to take Edgar Allan Poe and be creative with him and his works. Have fun. Explore the macabre. Notice how he uses unreliable narrators, sentences that begin with adverbs, and detectives at a time when nobody else was doing that. At the same time, develop your skills as a script writer, researcher, poet, actor, and filmmaker. It’s just so much fun to do and to watch as a teacher.

That’s what my American Lit students are in the midst of. Today, my “Cask of Amontillado” group was struggling with an idea. They want to create a film out of the story, but modernize it a bit. But since so much of Poe is narration, that was something they needed to get creative with. They decided to have little cutaway segments with each character talking about his thoughts while this is going on. They explained this idea to me by referring to how they do it on Keeping up with the Kardashians. So I thought, “Okay. This is my reality TV group.” I tucked that into my brain for if I would need it later. I continued walking around the room, advising my groups as needed, and I made it back to them.

They weren’t sure what was going on with the character Montressor. They didn’t think his story really made sense, and they were dancing around the concept of an unreliable narrator. So to help them, I brought up The Bachelor. “You know how Britt and Kelsey act one way around Chris, and one way around the girls of the house, and another way when they’re doing their cutaway scenes? That’s sort of like Montressor in this story. He might not be telling us exactly what happens, and it’s possible that he’s even a little crazy.”

Their jaws dropped, as their male high school teacher was talking about The Bachelor [and quite expertly, I might add!]. But they were also nodding along. “Yeah! Oh, that makes sense!”

The other problem they were having had to do with Luchesi. Though he is referenced throughout the story, he’s not actually a character in the story. They realized that, given Montressor’s penchant for lying and the fact that there is no wine, Luchesi probably would have no idea of his role in the story. But this group wanted him to have some cutaway scenes. Again, since we were talking The Bachelor, I had to continue in that vein. “Remember when Carly and some other girls told Chris that Britt didn’t really like Arlington? And he was totally taken aback and had no idea? That’s sort of like Luchesi here. He doesn’t have any idea what’s going on, even though he’s being talked about.”

Again, this helped it click for them. Their idea for his cutaway scenes is going to have him, totally straight-faced, saying something like “Umm. . .yeah, I didn’t do that.” “I have no idea what he’s talking about,” and such. It’s going to be awesome. I can’t wait to see what this group comes up with for their finished product. No doubt, it will be fantastic.

And there was actually a benefit for me watching The Bachelor. Who knew?