#EnglishTeacherNerdsUnite

NCTE Exhibition HallIf you look at the picture on the right, you might be asking yourself why all those people are in line. Concert tickets? The latest gadget? Maybe a Kleinfeld’s sample sale?

Nope.

What you’re seeing is a line of hundreds of language arts and English teachers—from pre-service to elementary, from middle to high school to college—waiting for the NCTE exhibition hall to open on Sunday morning. So while others slept in, these teachers were anxiously awaiting for the doors to open. What’s behind these doors? Well, books, of course. As I said to my students on Monday morning, it was like a Black Friday sale for teachers. Needless to say, they were a bit incredulous.

During the NCTE Convention exhibition, dozens of publishers offer discounts on books for classroom use. On the last day in particular, hundreds of books are even given away for free, as publishers promote upcoming titles. One elementary school teacher I spoke to said she was walking away with 25-30 books to add to her classroom library. I saw several teachers with rolling luggages filled with books. And lines for authors signings zigzagged around the exhibition hall.

James DashnerSpeaking of authors, another highlight for me, personally, was the opportunity to meet several authors. For example, here I am with James Dashner, author of the Maze Runner series. He was signing at the PermaBound booth. As I walked by, I was surprised to see his line was relatively short. After joining the back of the line, however, the PermaBound rep let me know that they had run out of books for the signing. No matter. I asked if I could just get my picture taken with him to show my students (Look, authors are real people, too!). 🙂

Although I was in workshop sessions for most of the weekend (more on that in another post), I did get to carve out some time with a few more authors.

Despite being mobbed by hundreds of crazy English teachers (we’re a special breed, I must say), each author was incredibly gracious. I asked David Levithan the question that’s been on my mind (and on many of my students’ minds) ever since I finished Every Day: will there be a sequel?  The answer? Thankfully, yes. A companion novel to Every Day is coming out next year. Now there’s just the wait. But at least I’ve got a pile of books to read to keep me busy until then.

 

New (school)Year’s Resolutions

Each August brings with it mixed feelings.

The first is always shock: Wow, August already? Didn’t we just get out of school?

The second is denial: August? Really? It can’t be. Didn’t we just get of school?

Then anger: What, August?!? Why?!? We just got out of school!!

Eventually and slowly comes acceptance: August? Okay, deep breath, and here we go. For some teachers, this can happen in mid-August; those are the teachers who can be found coming to school early to get their classrooms set up.  For other teachers, acceptance may not happen until sometime during the first inservice day when they look around and realize: Wow, I guess this is really happening.

August always comes too quickly for me, mostly because I tend to have a huge to-do list for the summer that never gets done. This summer, for example, I was supposed to paint the downstairs powder room and renovate the boys’ bedroom. I got as far as picking out a few paint swatches from Lowe’s and taping them to the wall. (Somehow I still overestimate how much I can accomplish while watching/entertaining/feeding/herding my three boys.)

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These guys keep me pretty busy in the summer (and year round)!

But now that it’s officially August, thoughts of back-to-school take center stage again and nervous excitement builds as I get closer to that first day. I love the beginning of the school year—the energy, the optimism. While January may be the time that the rest of the world makes their resolutions, for teachers, September is our new year, our time to begin anew, to set goals, be inspired. I suspect some students feel the same way, too.

Sometimes students ask if I get bored teaching the same thing over and over again. And my answer is always no, of course not! First, my students are different every year, so even if the material is the same, it’s the unique interaction between students and the material that makes each year special. And second, every year, I make it a point to try something new. Sometimes that means piloting a new book—such as when I introduced The Kite Runner two years ago. Or a new project—like the This American Life project my colleague Ben Smith and I did with our juniors last year.

So what will this year bring? A few of my goals:

For all my students:

  • Integrate more visual art—paintings, sketches, photography—into my writing instruction.
  • Create a system of visual note-taking or sketchnotes in my own notebook and teach students how to do the same.
  • Redesign various parts of my current instruction to reflect a more “Creativity Workshop” approach, including more opportunities for creative writing and for students to develop/express their voice

For my ninth graders:

  • Implement a more comprehensive reader’s/writer’s notebook approach with my ninth graders
  • Establish clearer goals and more structure to the independent reading program
  • Find a place to include more Asian literature in our world literature course

For my juniors:

  • Teach rhetorical analysis writing more explicitly, with a focus on pre-20th-century texts
  • Explore some flipped learning opportunities with writing mini-lessons

Of course, looking at this list already feels overwhelming! But it’s a good kind of overwhelming. The truth is that teaching can be an incredibly frustrating job. Increasingly, teachers are being tasked to do more with less: fewer resources and less time. That’s why setting personal teaching goals have been so valuable for me: they provide a sense of autonomy and a little “light at the end of the tunnel” even when there are outside forces tugging in other directions.

View from my ballroom

One of the things I love about teaching is the creativity: creating new assignments, finding more effective ways to engage students, and designing materials that are more inviting.  Thinking like a teacher doesn’t end with the school day, and I find myself planning lessons everywhere I am, whether it’s in the kitchen when I’m cooking dinner or in the car when I’m driving to work.  Teachers live and breathe in the world of ideas.

IMG_2360So when I heard that the AP conference was going to be held in Philadelphia this summer, I jumped at the opportunity to attend and to pick the brains of some of the leading AP teachers from around the country.  And so over the course of two days in July, I attended several workshops facilitated by some wonderful presenters. Workshop topics included:

  1. Developing Schema for Successful Rhetorical Analysis
  2. Entering the Conversation of Synthesis with Students
  3. Pictures that Bridge Gaps: The Photo Essay and the Synthesis Essay
  4. Learning to Decode—and Enjoy—Pre-2oth-Century Texts
  5. Making Connections: In-Depth Analysis of Full-Length Texts Using Learning Stations
  6. Novels as News, Poetry as Proof: Using Literary Sources as Evidence

Even though the conference was only two days, I walked away with so many great ideas for not just teaching AP Lang but any English class.  Some key takeaways:

  • Try to use more engaging and interesting “real world” mentor texts that students can rely on as they develop their own voice. I can’t expect students to know how to write without first seeing what the possibilities for writing are.
  • Create more explicit writing scaffolds for students as a way to improve their rhetorical analysis skills.  Writing is thinking, so helping students write more clearly through the use of scaffolds can also help them think more clearly about the text they’re analyzing.
  • Show the similarities between visual arguments and written arguments, using visual arguments to improve students’ ability to understand written texts. This would be especially helpful in teaching the rhetorical triangle.
  • Use strong characters in fiction to teach students about tone.  Even though the AP Lang course is focused primarily in non-fiction, it can be difficult for students to hear the tone in non-fiction texts, especially if most of the non-fiction they are accustomed to reading has been primarily expository or informational texts.  In the pre-20th-Century workshop I attended, the facilitator demonstrated a lesson on tone using Pride and Prejudice and Gatsby. It was wonderful! After all, who can’t hear the snobbery dripping from Tom Buchanan’s voice or the ironic and haughty lines in many of Austen’s characters? Revisiting excerpts from books students have read in earlier English classes would be a great starting point since they are already familiar with those texts.

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  • Find ways to integrate more literary texts into persuasive writing. The workshop facilitated by Renee Shea and Robin Aufses, two of the authors of our textbook, focused on how to use literature to advance arguments in persuasive essays. During the workshop, we read an editorial published in the NY Times as well as an essay in The Atlantic, both of which used literary texts as evidence in making an argument. Not only does this help students further their own arguments, integrating literary texts in this way also reminds students that great literature does the same thing that great non-fiction does: raise questions and make arguments about some our most pressing societal concerns.  Issues of social class raised in Austen and Fitzgerald are the same issues debated between pundits in the NY Times and Wall Street Journal.
  • Examine more pre-20th-century texts to give students additional practice reading these sometimes difficult texts.  The average score on rhetorical analysis prompt on this year’s AP Lang exam—a letter from Abigail Adams to her son—was only 3.64 out of 9, the lowest in the history of the exam (the previous low was 3.96).  One way to help students is more direct instruction in learning how to read the nuances in the grammatical structures in these texts.

While some of the ideas weren’t necessarily new, it was nice to see so many other teachers affirming some of the best practices I’ve used in my own teaching over the years. I also enjoyed seeing the ways in which tried-and-true strategies—like learning stations—could be reinvented for the AP course.

Because the school year is typically a busy—and yes, sometimes frantic—time, it can be hard to find the time to implement new ideas or revise lessons. But opportunities like attending this year’s AP conference, or going to NCTE conference a few years ago, are what rejuvenate my teaching spirit and hopefully will help keep me—and my students—engaged in the upcoming year.