Thursday, October 4, 2012

Making Connections

We talk about helping students make connections to the literature we study, but there are some other connections that are also important.

Today was one of those crazy days. Okay, I know—when you’re a teacher, every day has its own level of craziness. And teachers are always busy. But, still, today was one of those especially busy days when I had a few roles to play. I spent the entire school day in meetings with all the other department chairs around the county, then I headed to my school to work with Speech & Debate Team members for the last bit of their practice, and I ended my day in a class for teachers (“High School Reads Nonfiction”) which is being led by two of my wonderful colleagues. It was a busy day, but it was also productive and enjoyable. When I ran into a couple of students upon returning to school, they asked how my meetings went, and we chatted for a couple of minutes about my day and their time in class. Students on the team asked about my meetings and also said they hoped the class went well this evening.
And, at this point, you’re probably thinking, why is she telling me all of this? I’m not bragging about my activities or complaining about how busy I am, and I’m not bragging about how thoughtful my students can be (although many of them are pretty amazing). When we talk about how we teach literature, we spend a good bit of time discussing how it’s important to make connections, to make lessons relevant to our students’ lives. My interactions with my students today got me thinking about some other connections that are important. It’s essential that we connect with our students. But I don’t believe that it’s enough for us to know what is going on in and around their lives. They also need to see and hear about what is going on in our lives. We all hope that students see us as more than just teachers. We tell them about our pets, children, and hobbies in effort to make this connection with them. Beyond that, though, students should see how we apply what we teach outside of the classroom. They need to see and hear about that connection as well.

I don’t give my students a run-down of all of my meetings and other activities, but I do find ways to make connections during class discussions. When I told my students I would be out today because I would be attending meetings with the other department chairs in the county, they were really interested in the fact that all the chairs got together to talk about things. It gave them a glimpse of a bigger picture for English instruction and education as a whole. Throughout my grad-school years, I expressed enthusiasm for my classes, and I’ve shared my excitement about the nonfiction class I’m taking this semester. Yes, these are more “classroom” examples, but by sharing these experiences, students can see that I’m still learning and seeking opportunities to learn and grow. Students should know that we are learners, too, and it’s great if we can make connections and share what and how we’re learning. When I attend literary events (book festivals, readings, poetry slams), I share tidbits with my students. I share my “choice” reading selections. I’ll find ways to make connections to articles I read in places such as the newspaper or Time magazine and pose questions to the class about the issues. I share how I network with people through Twitter, and I talk about my attempts to keep up with a blog, discussing such things as the writing process and writing for an audience. Again, I do not intend for any of these things to come across as bragging to my students, but I want them to see that what we do and discuss in the English classroom matters beyond the English classroom.

We should, of course, also make connections with what students are doing outside of our classrooms that ties in with what we’re doing in our classrooms. Making these types of connections helps to foster a sense of community, and it also demonstrates a real respect for our students when we open up and share what we’re learning and doing.

Just some musings at the end of a long day J

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Summertime Gluten-Free Goodness--Sugar Cones!

I was absolutely thrilled when I found Joy Cone's Gluten-Free Sugar Cones a couple of weeks ago! My mom, grandparents, and I took a day-trip to Lancaster and stopped at the Shady Maple grocery store. They always carry some different GF items so I like to take a look when we go. And that's when I discovered these sugar cones! Yes, there are other gluten-free cones out there. But these are extra-special because, not only are they gluten-free, but they are also potato-free! ( Note--The cones do contain corn and soy.) On top of celiac disease, I have a plethora of food allergies, including potato. If you're gluten-free, too, you know that this is a horrible combination since so many GF products on the market are made with potato flour/starch. (This is why Bradley and I make all of our own baked goods and bread.) These cones are a delicious treat, and they are wonderful with So Delicious frozen desserts! (Yes, dairy is also on my list of allergies.) 

And it never hurts to write and let a company know how much you appreciate their product!


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Choice Reading--What Students Say

Back in April, I shared my thoughts on the power ofchoice reading. I’ve now gone through the course evaluations and reflections my English 10 students submitted on the last day of class, and I want to share what they said about choice reading. As part of their year-end reflection, students were asked to reflect on their growth over the course of the school year: “How have you grown as a reader, writer, and presenter? What are your goals for continued growth? How has your view of literature developed over the course of the school year?”  Many students wrote about the Choice Reading program. The comments below are actual student statements about reading. If you’re on the fence about starting a Choice Reading program in your classes, I hope that these student comments will inspire you!

One other thought about Choice Reading before the comments---After my initial Choice Reading post, my IB I students asked why they don’t have Choice Reading time. Some of my students follow me on Twitter and saw the post.  I felt so bad when they came to class the next day and asked this question! One of my goals for this coming school year is to work Choice Reading time into my IB classes, too. I guess I assumed that because they were taking IB English, they loved to read and were, therefore, reading on their own. Not true. So many of my IB students are overwhelmed with school work and other activities; they feel like they don’t have time to read anymore. Choice Reading in class would not only be an escape for these students, but it could also encourage them to find time to read outside of school.

And now, what students have to say about Choice Reading:

·         “If I had to choose my favorite time of the school day, I would probably choose the 15 minutes of choice reading we get. It’s a time where I get to shut out the rest of the world and focus on a different one. I haven’t had a time like this since 5th grade and I’ve missed it. This time has allowed me to read and find books I care about and actually want to read. I find that I’ve started staying up past twelve reading and I love it! I have found a new passion and reading has become a big part of my life this year. The more I read the more I want to read more, and my view on literature has grown greatly.”

·         “I am happy that we got the opportunity to have the fifteen minutes to read in the beginning of class every class. I usually get lazy to read on my own volition, but having this reading time motivates me to read.”

·         “I felt like I grew a lot as a reader throughout the year because I read a lot more than I usually do and I actually sort of enjoyed it.”

·         “At the beginning of the year I enjoyed reading but always put it to the wayside to other things, like video games. Later in the year I found myself picking up a book more and more because I now want to read the book.”

·         “Reading has always been something I had enjoyed until last year when we were beginning to be forced into reading certain books. However, when I opened my mind more to realizing that the books they chose for us were not that bad, I got back into reading. Also, this year I have found my favorite author, Sarah Dessen, and many other authors that I have fallen in love with. I think the choice reading during class has been my favorite part of the year and has in a way saved my love for reading.

·         “I’ve grown as a reader by being able to read the first 15 minutes of every class. I never used to read before and since we started with reading every class, I actually like reading a lot. I read in my free time which I never ever used to do.”

·         “I no longer hate the idea of reading. It’s kind of enjoyable now.”

·         “Before this year I hated to read. No, I mean it. I really hated reading….I wasn’t interested. It changed this year…As this year went on, I found that the books we read in class were a little more interesting. Some of them were relatable to me. Then we also had to read free-choice books. I started picking those the old way—by length. But then I stumbled on a book I really enjoyed…I found that I started to like reading somewhat. I still prefer television and movies but I learned that if a book is well written and the subject is interesting to me then I can find enjoyment in it. This is very different than how I thought of books at the beginning of the school year.”

·         “I used to love reading, but didn’t read often. Now I’ve gotten back to frequently reading not because I have to, but because I want to.”

·         “I learned to appreciate books again. The 15 minutes of quiet reading were sometimes the best fifteen minutes of the day. I would often find myself wishing it was more than 15, and I would really get into the reading.”

·         “I have always been a book worm, but this year I started reading a lot more. Normally I stick to books with romance, or books about teenagers, but I really branched out this year. For example, The Help was the first book I read this year that wasn’t about a love story. I still love Nicholas Sparks, but I really wanted to get some diversity in what I was reading. I also became a much faster reader. I am proud of how many books I read this year.”

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Power of Debate

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” –Atticus to Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (Chapter 3)

We know we should consider things from different perspectives in order to gain a more accurate picture of a situation or an issue, but it isn’t always easy to do, is it? More often than not, we nod our heads in agreement with Atticus’s wise words, but, in reality, we stubbornly cling to our own ideas without really considering other perspectives.

Studying literature helps us to see and realize perspectives we may not have ever considered, but the art of debate forces us to truly think about and argue two sides to an issue.

Some Background—Debate in the Classroom
While the members of the Speech & Debate Team prepare cases for a new debate topic every one or two months (depending on whether they compete in Public Forum or Lincoln-Douglas debate), students in my Speech Communications class only prepare for a full, Public Forum debate at the end of the year. When I introduce debate, we do a number of class debate activities, but due to the size of the class, each student only participates in one full-length debate in May. I give students a list of recent PF (Public Forum) and LD (Lincoln-Douglas) debate topics, and they can either select resolutions from that list and/or create their own resolutions. Once students form teams and I determine the debate pairings (which teams will debate each other), the pairs of teams select their debate resolution together from the compiled class list. This May, students debated on a range of topics, from the legalization of marijuana (yes, cliché, I know), to making cigarettes illegal, to stand-your-ground laws, to gay marriage. Since these students only do one debate, I allow them some choice when it comes to their topic, and, depending on the students’ skill and confidence levels, I’m okay with them debating what would be a cliché topic for a persuasive essay.

Students prepare both sides of the debate (affirmative and negative), just like they would in competition, even though they will only argue one side. At first, some of the students are frustrated with what seems like a ton of extra work, but I keep explaining that since they don’t know what side they will be arguing (until the coin toss just before their debate), they must be prepared, and the “extra” preparation helps them to consider opposing arguments for each case. The students are also frustrated with the idea that they may have to argue the side that goes against what they personally think or believe. That, I tell them, is the beauty of debate, and it is also where skill truly comes into play.

Seeing the Power of Debate
After he/she debates, each student writes a reflection on how the debate went, what they would do differently if they had another round of debate, and which side they felt won the debate and why. In these reflections, students share the struggles they had with the debate.

This year, one particular student’s reflection was very insightful and encouraging. This particular student did not have a lot of confidence in his speaking skills all year, and, although he had prepared for his debate, he didn’t seem very excited or confident before the debate began. And then the debate started, and about ten minutes in, he just came alive! I was hearing a lot of holes in the opposing team’s arguments, and, to my pleasant surprise, my not-so-confident student pointed out each hole and provided excellent rebuttal and attack throughout the debate! He was on fire! What I was most impressed with, however, was this student’s reflection. In his reflection, he shared that when the debate started, he knew it was going to be a challenge because he had to argue the affirmative and that side went against his personal beliefs. However, going through the debate, he completely changed his mind and agreed with the affirmative. (Note-The purpose of debate is not to "convert" students to another view. The purpose is to get them to think deeply and critically about two sides of an issue.)  I asked this student about his reflection.

“The debate really made you change your mind?”

“Totally!” He said. “Before the debate, I was always against it. But preparing for and then going through the debate, I realized I didn’t have a good reason as to why. The debate made me realize that I didn’t have an argument at all—just a belief without support. I had never considered the other side before.”

Wow! And the debate topic? The legalization of gay marriage. Now, the topic could have been anything. (Although I do wonder if those who say they are against gay marriage have really thought through their reasoning as this student did through the act of debating the topic.) The point is that the debate made the student consider another view and the one he had held. He truly thought about the issue, analyzed the issue, and, in the end, he knew what he believed and why. He’s not holding to a belief just “because.”  

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Choice Reading--I'm a believer!

This year, I completely revamped my English 10 Choice Reading program. Scratch that--this year, I created a Choice Reading program. Before this school year, I had an expectation and requirement that students would read one "choice" book per quarter, but I did not have any guaranteed built-in time for students to read and work with these choice books. That all changed this school year, thanks to some inspiration from Kelly Gallagher and a friend and colleague of mine, and the results of this new program have been amazing! 

Here are the basics:

  • Students are required to read at least one book of their choice each quarter. (This expectation has not changed.)
  • The first fifteen (15) minutes of every English 10 class is "Choice Book Reading" time. Right after I greet the class with "good morning" or "good afternoon," we all settle in with our choice books and I start the timer for 15 minutes. ( Note: We all read our choice books. I read, too!) Students must read their choice book during this reading time, not the required reading text we're studying as a class. I started the 15-minutes of choice reading on the first day of school (we all read a short story that day since I knew that not everyone would have a book), and I have stuck with it despite schedule changes, shortened class periods due to late openings, etc. Consistency is key! It would be too easy to find reasons why we "can't" fit it in the schedule. The reality is that it is just as essential as any other activity we do in class.  
  • Within the first couple of weeks of school, our class took a trip down to the library where the librarian gave book talks and had them complete an activity which involved exploring different books. Some students found their 1st quarter Choice Book on this library visit.
  • Each quarter, students complete a creative assignment and present their book and project to the class. The first quarter project was a book review, the second quarter was a bookmark project, and third quarter was a choice between a bookmark (because it was quite popular), a poster for a movie adaptation, or a soundtrack for the book. Regardless of the activity, students discuss key motifs and themes as part of their presentation, and they share a key passage from the text. All of the activities require more thought and analysis than mere plot summary.

the choice reading bookshelf in my classroom

The collection has grown a bit since I took this photo a couple of months ago. The bookshelf is now overflowing and I have an basket of books that sits beside the shelf, and some additional books are on one shelf of another bookshelf in the room. At the beginning of the school year, I asked for donations from friends and family. (Thanks to all who donated!) I've brought in books from our bookshelves at home, and some of the books are from the Choice Book Room that our English Department is blessed to have. I also pick up books from the bargain section at Barnes and Noble from time to time and purchase some from Amazon, especially when students share a title that becomes very popular in the class.

Here are some of the results of this Choice Reading program:
  • Although they are only required to read one book each quarter, the majority of my students are reading several books each quarter. I have one student who checks a new one out at least every other class! Some students are developing a love of reading while others are rediscovering this love that had become lost in the craziness of their teenage lives. Students are learning which genres and authors they like. Of course, I do have a few students who do not really enjoy the gift of fifteen minutes of reading each class, but the vast majority do.
  • Since the students present their books and projects each quarter, they are also working on their presentation skills. And since I videotape each presentation and students watch and reflect on these presentations, their public speaking skills are continuing to improve.
  • My students love talking about their books! They enjoy sharing their thoughts about the books, and they frequently read books that other students have recommended. Books tend to trickle through the class and then students have discussions about these common texts.
  • The students ask me about what I'm reading, and they love to suggest titles. A few months ago, when I added Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to the choice bookshelf and told them a bit about the novel, several students recommended that I read Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life because they thought I would find some similarities. That YA novel became my next choice book, and the students loved the fact that I read their recommended title.
  • My students are more open to the required reading in class, and they are making more connections between texts.
  • My students' vocabulary skills are improving, as are their discussions about assigned readings.
some of the popular titles in my classes right now

Here are my three favorite Choice Reading moments from this school year thus far:
  • When the timer goes off at the end of fifteen minutes, I ask the class to find a stopping point and take out their vocabulary (or whatever it is we're working on next). One day, as the timer went off and I quietly said "go ahead and find a stopping point," one of my most reluctant readers moaned, "But I want to keep reading!" The whole class looked at him and then he looked up from his book and said, "Yes, I admit it. I like reading!" It was one of the best moments of my teaching career! 

  • Back in January, a new student joined one of my classes. Before we started our choice reading time that day, I asked the student to introduce himself and tell us what kinds of books he enjoys reading. When he didn't tell us about what books he enjoys, I asked him again and he replied, "Oh, no, I don't read." The entire class gasped and turned to look at him, their mouths wide open. Then one of the students picked out a book for him to read and we started our fifteen minutes of quiet reading. The reading time had become such an understood part of the culture of that class and the class clearly enjoyed it--I was thrilled.

  • When I add books to the shelf, I do a mini book talk. A couple of weeks ago, our department spent our monthly meeting time sharing nonfiction titles. The next day, I went to our Choice Book Room and picked up some of the titles which I thought my students would find the most interesting, and then I shared a bit about the books before we started our reading time that day. As soon as I said, "okay, go ahead and grab your choice book and get ready for our fifteen minutes of choice reading," four or five students literally ran to the front of the room to grab books that I had just finished sharing! I must say, I loved seeing my students arguing over who grabbed the books first! The one out of that list that is most popular in my classes right now is Half a Life: A Memoir by Darin Strauss.  
The fifteen minutes dedicated to choice reading means that some time is being taken from focusing on other activities and skills, but, as a whole, I see so much improvement as a result of this new program that I believe it is well worth it! 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Some thoughts on current education issues--But, of course, what do I know? I’m just a teacher.

Friends and family members often ask me about my thoughts on various changes and trends in education and education reform. The latest such question has left me dwelling on my thoughts on various issues with education reform. (These issues surround me on a daily basis, so they're never really too far out of mind.) 

The issue of fixing public education in American is most certainly big and complex. Our students deserve the very best education, and there are dedicated teachers, administrators, and advocates out there who are working towards positive change. I most certainly do not think that I have all the answers to the complex issue of fixing our educational system, but I definitely have some thoughts based on my years in the classroom and the impact that reform efforts have had in my classroom and on my students.

  1. We need to realize that it’s not as simple as blaming “failing” schools and “bad teachers.” We have a flawed system and failing societies. Read and follow Diane Ravitch. Enough said.   Check out her book The Life and Death of the Great American School System  
  2. Standardized testing is NOT the answer. It sounds like a good idea to have standards and to measure those standards. Despite the fact that standardized tests are not authentic assessments, they are being treated as the way to determine what a student has learned and can do. The standardized testing that has come with NCLB is not used as a diagnostic tool; rather, it is used as a weapon.  Yes, it points out that there are achievement gaps, “under-performing schools,” and links between academic achievement and social economic status, but it’s not fixing the problems.  Rather, it’s making them worse because of the focus on testing. Additionally, with the pressure to make AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress), some teachers, administrators, schools, and districts have resorted to cheating so that they pass. (And notice who is cheating in these situations. The students are not often stressing over those tests, but the teachers and administrators are. That alone should indicate a major problem.) For more about what is going on in “failing schools,” check out this TIME magazine article on the 10th anniversary of NCLB And then there’s this interview with George W. Bush. He clearly has no clue about the real impact of NCLB. 

3.       Teachers want to see their students succeed, and we want to help them reach that success. NCLB implies that teachers are willingly, knowingly leaving students behind. Good, true teachers are not out to get their students. Teachers also know that a student’s true worth and achievement can’t be measured by a standardized test.

4.       Enough with the testing! Standardized testing is flawed in so many ways. Many teachers find themselves having to “teach to the test” so that their students will pass the test (and so that they and their school “pass," too). Some subject areas have to struggle with the curriculum crunch more than others, but many teachers find themselves cutting activities and more authentic assessments for the sake of preparing for the tests. Note: I do believe that, as teachers, we can work against the “teach to the test” mentality and provide authentic assessments and ensure that students have the skills necessary to pass mandated tests. However, this mentality is a reality of the times.  Daniel Dyer has a wonderful blog post about how education has changed from when many of us were in school.

In addition to the crunch in the curriculum caused by the “teach to the test” mentality, testing takes up a lot of TIME! Because of testing, students miss valuable hours that could be spent on true, meaningful learning opportunities. Teachers miss hours of time that could (and should) be used to plan these meaningful learning opportunities and assess students’ work because we must go to training sessions to prepare for administering these tests. And then we spend hours each school year monitoring these tests. (Note-These hours come out of our planning periods and class time.) We pace up and down the rows of students taking tests, making sure that no one is cheating. And we often have to wake students up because they have fallen asleep while taking the test! (Remember—they’re not really stressing over these tests.) As proctors, we can’t work on anything because we must remain vigilant at all times. I work through lesson plans in my head. It’s really a truly productive time. (Can you hear the sarcasm?) This year, our state is piloting an electronic version of the writing test. Most of our standardized tests have been electronic for years, but the writing one is just making the change. Because we must pilot the test, my students have to take a test (that won’t count) over two days later in March. Oh, and this pilot test happens weeks after the real one. More valuable instructional time is just slipping away this coming month.

5.      Merit pay doesn’t work. Check out Daniel Pink’s eight points about why merit pay doesn’t work  Pay is not a motivator. Teachers didn’t enter the profession for the pay, trust me. We’re motivated by working with our students and watching them succeed. We’re motivated by sharing our passion for our subject area. I already work very hard (all year long, I might add). I want to improve, and I am constantly working on improving my teaching methods. And I revise lessons constantly to best meet the needs of my current students. More pay will not make me work harder. I can’t think of how I could work harder than I already do without completely sacrificing my sanity. If you haven’t checked out my Starbucks story, this would be a good time. And, if you’ve never seen it, watch this video of Matt Damon defending teachers. If you have seen it, watch it again, especially if you’re a teacher. It’s a great morale-booster!

6.       Teacher education programs need to raise the bar. Yes, there are, sadly, “bad” teachers in our public schools. But, as Matt Damon points out, there are “bad apples” in every profession or career. This is a reality, but it should not be our only focus. This being said, I believe that teacher education programs need to raise the bar. I’m aware of more than one instance in which a mentor teacher has recommended that a student not continue with her education program and receive certification, but the education program directors at the student’s school ignored this recommendation, and the student was certified and is now in a classroom. (Note-She had passed her Praxis exams, standardized tests. But does that mean she’s ready to teach?) Students in teacher preparation programs need to be fully prepared to enter the classroom. This means students in education programs must spend plenty of time  in a variety of classroom settings. They must have real teaching experiences and receive a lot of feedback before beginning a teaching career.

7.       Authentic teacher evaluation systems need to be created and put in place. A two-minute walk-through twice a yearor even one half-hour visit each year, is not enough to truly evaluate a teacher. A teacher’s evaluation and/or pay should not be determined by these superficial assessments. Granted, administrators have full plates, too. But there needs to be a better system. And good teachers want to improve. Although it may be uncomfortable at first, many teachers would probably welcome comments, observations, and suggestions from honest, well-meaning colleagues.

8.       Teachers shouldn’t be evaluated based on their students’ standardized test scores, and pay shouldn’t be tied to student achievement on standardized tests. Imagine that a doctor tells her patient that he has high cholesterol.  She writes a prescription for medication and advises her patient about dietary choices that will help improve the condition. The patient doesn’t take the medicine like he should and doesn’t make the dietary changes necessary. The patient has his six-month check-up and it’s obvious that the condition has worsened. Should the doctor now earn less because her patient hasn’t improved? This would be crazy, right? Yet this is the idea that many have when it comes to education reform and teacher pay and rankings. 
      It’s also unfair to rank teachers based on student achievement because not all classes are created equal. In our state, students take the reading and writing tests in the 11th grade. I teach IB HL 11th grade English. My students will do quite well on their standard-level reading and writing test. But does this mean that I should earn more than a colleague who teaches regular-level English 11? Of course not!

These are just some of my thoughts on some of the hot topics concerning education and education reform efforts right now. But I’m just a teacher. What do I know? Clearly the legislators (non-educators) have it all figured out.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Giving students the tools to become stronger, more confident speakers

This past Tuesday, my English department spent our in-service day discussing oral communication skills. We started with a discussion of Erik Palmer's Well Spoken. After reading some good reviews of Palmer's book (and seeing that Kelly Gallagher wrote the foreword), I purchased and read the book last spring and then recommended it to my department chair. She then purchased copies for every teacher in our department, and we decided the book would become the focus of a department workshop. We worked together to create what became a very productive in-service.

There are a plethora of books on public speaking out there, and as a Speech & Debate teacher and coach, I've read (and own) many of them. Palmer's new book is perhaps the best resource for teachers of any content area. It is concise (only 148 pages), clear, and organized, with practical ideas and suggestions that can easily be implemented into any classroom, not just English classrooms. The question of how to teach oral communication skills more effectively seems to come up quite a bit in my English department, and Palmer's book is the perfect little handbook full of answers and ideas to get teachers started! (You can also check out Palmer's website.)

Here are some highlights and additional thoughts on teaching public speaking skills in the classroom:

  • I have heard a lot of teachers complain about how their students lack presentation skills. Others are noticing, too. In his introduction, Palmer discusses the National Association of Colleges and Employers survey. The results of "NACE's Job Outlook 2011 survey suggest that 'New college graduates looking to crack the still-tight job market need to hone their verbal communication skills...verbal communication skills topped the list of 'soft' skills they seek in new college graduates'" (5).  Palmer goes on to discuss similar findings in a survey of 104 Silicon Valley employers. Perhaps the most striking observation is that "employers sought improved oral presentation skills more frequently than they did written skills" (6). We need to readjust our thinking and teaching of oral communication and presentation skills. Instead of thinking "the presentations are so bad," we need to think about how we can better teach the skills. Also, we must provide opportunities for students to present and improve. The weak skills will not magically improve if students are only giving presentations once or twice a year, or even just once a quarter. Instead of thinking of presentations as an "add on" to our curriculum, we need to consistently integrate speaking opportunities. And not all speaking opportunities need to be formal. Think-Pair-Share discussions, group discussions, whole-class discussions, Socratic Seminars, group presentations, informal and/or impromptu presentations...all of these provide opportunities for students to practice their skills!
  • Students also need an opportunity to reflect on their presentations. It's one thing for a student's teacher and peers to tell him/her what they need to work on, but it's a whole new, more meaning experience when a student sees these areas for him/herself! Palmer suggests that students tape themselves at home. I encourage teachers to videotape presentations in class! Aside from providing meaningful opportunities for students to practice their presentation skills, I believe that videotaping presentations, and having students watch and reflect on their presentations, is the best way for students to work on and improve their presentations skills. I record presentations in my Speech & Debate class (and team), of course, but I also record presentations my English 10 and IB English I students deliver. At first, students can be a bit anxious about the idea that their presentations are being videotaped, but they quickly see the incredible value of videotaped presentations! Students watch their video and write a critique in which they focus on their strengths and weaknesses and create goals for future presentations. NOTE: Be sure to include a statement and explanation about videotaped presentations in your course policies/syllabus! 
  • We need to create a culture of comfort in our classrooms. Students need opportunities to practice their presentations skills, and they need to have a safe, comfortable environment in which to do so. There are many things that go into creating a "culture of comfort." Always starting with positive comments is essential to creating a "safe zone" in the classroom. Palmer tacks this idea on as almost an afterthought in his discussion of creating a "safe space": "Finally, let students know that positive comments are appreciated" (101; emphasis added). Starting with positive comments should be the first step in creating and maintaining a safe zone in the classroom. Not only do I require students to start positive when giving oral critiques, but they also have to start with positive comments when they write critiques of their own presentations. It makes a difference for confidence and comfort in the classroom.
  • Students need to understand that visual aides must enhance presentations in order to be effective. All too often, students get so excited about creating their visual, be it a Power Point or a poster, and they start planning the visual before they plan their message! Palmer has a great chapter about using visual aids. I'll just add a helpful tip our librarians share with our students: the "10/20/30 rule" for Power Point presentations. 10/20/30: No more than 10 slides. No more than 20 words per slide. Size-30 font.
  • Assessing presentations--Palmer emphasizes the importance of teaching and evaluating content and delivery separately, and he provides some helpful rubrics as well as some critiques of rubrics. As Palmer points out, though, "not all speeches have to include all elements of effective oral communication" (114). You can add skills onto the rubric as they're covered and practiced. You can even let students decide which elements they want to be assessed on based on their goals from their critiques. 
There is so much more I can say about the importance of public speaking and our responsibility as educators to incorporate meaningful presentations opportunities into our class activities and lessons! I'd love to hear your thoughts, comments, questions, and ideas! I'll plan to share some public speaking teaching tips every now and then in my blog posts.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Teaching: "the most overcompensated profession"? Try under-appreciated and disrespected

I spent some time grading papers at Starbucks tonight. Usually, my Starbucks grading sessions are very productive, but that was definitely not the case this evening. A group of women sipping lattes on the couches in the corner were distracting me with their loud conversation about their husbands’ inadequacies. The husband-bashing was enough to distract and annoy me, but then the conversation turned to school and teachers and I became infuriated. The four women discussed their frustrations about daycare options for when school was closed or when students don’t have school because of “teacher workdays.” One woman, the ringleader bitch, if you will, complained about the existence of teacher workdays and in-service days (“why do they even need them?”). She then went on to tell her friends that “new studies show that, when you take everything into consideration, teaching is the most overcompensated profession. I mean, think about it—they get summers off, their day is over by two or three. I should just be an f***ing teacher!” (Oh, please don’t!)

As I tried to concentrate on the in-class writings I was grading, I wondered if any of these women realized what I was doing just two tables over. Off by two or three, huh? Here it is, a Saturday night, and I’m spending my time at Starbucks grading essays. Clearly I’m overcompensated to the extent that I actually have a thriving social life!

I struggled through a couple more essays—not because the writing was poor, but because I kept thinking about these women and their view of educators. These women are the parents of children in our public schools—and this is how they view teachers? Educators deal with enough negative portrayals from a number of sources, but we really need the support of parents!

I decided that I couldn’t just leave without saying something. Unable to focus enough to fairly grade any more papers, I packed up my bag and headed out, stopping by the couches on my way out:
“Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but overhear your comments about teachers earlier.” I made eye contact with each of the four women but mainly focused on the one who had made all the negative comments. As I was speaking this first sentence, she looked at her friends and said, “Oh, God.”
Calm, but assertive, I continued: “I just wanted to say that the study I assume you’re referring to regarding teachers being overcompensated is very flawed. I am definitely not overcompensated, or even compensated for that matter, for the time I spend grading papers at a Starbucks on a Saturday night. And I’m definitely not fully compensated for all the hours I spend working on grading and planning at home in the evenings during the week. I would encourage you to look into the facts and spend a week, or even just a day, with a teacher to see everything we do. We work very hard for your children.”

No response. The ringleader just glared at me. Two of the women avoided eye contact. The fourth woman gave me a small smile and a nod and seemed to mouth something—a “thank you,” maybe, but I’m not quite sure. Then I left and they sat there in silence.

I knew I had to say something to defend our profession. I hope that I made these women think, but I wish I had said more. To think that teachers are overcompensated is absurd. No, “when you take everything into consideration,” teaching is not the “most overcompensated profession.” Rather, teachers are perhaps the most underappreciated, disrespected professionals in our society today. The conversation these four women were having, sadly, supports this notion. “Considering everything” to this woman meant the length of the contract-hour workday and summers off. But most teachers work well beyond the contract-hour workday. And the “summers off” benefit that non-educators like to throw at us is obnoxious. True, we may not be teaching during the summer, but many teachers spend time at conferences, some work with students in summer-enrichment programs and workshops, and many plan to teach new material and review and improve lessons. As an English teacher, I read and plan new works that will become a part of the curriculum the following school year. I also write letters of recommendation in the summer months because the school year is so hectic. I most definitely still work in the summer, just in a different way. Also, this woman’s notion of “considering everything” isn’t taking into consideration the insane pressure that many teachers and schools are under thanks to standardized teaching.

Teachers do not teach because of the amazing compensation and benefits. We teach because we care—about the children, their future, our future, and the subject matter. I teach high-school English because I’m passionate about literature and I love working with teenagers. For me, it’s the best of both worlds! I love what I do, but I surely don’t do it for the money. Teaching is a calling, really. No one goes into teaching for the money. In fact, one of the top reasons teachers leave the profession in the first five years is because of the salary. Someone would be crazy to go into teaching because of the pay! It’s a lot of work for the money that we make. I spend countless hours outside of contract-hours each week, including weekends, grading papers and planning lessons. But I really can’t see myself doing anything else. It’s a lot of work for an inadequate monetary pay-off, but the other rewards—seeing a student grasp a concept they had been struggling with, helping a student overcome a fear of speaking in front of others, seeing a student smile because of the ‘A’ he/she earned on a paper, having a student thank you for listening and understanding—this “compensation” is oh so worth it.