Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Hannibal anybody?

In light of my previous Blog, I must now add the following.

There Never was a Better Premise...

"A pair of strangers, liberal high-school teacher Ralph Hinkley and right-wing FBI agent Bill Maxwell, have a close encounter in the Southern California desert one night with "little green men", who give our heroes a red superhero suit. The suit works only for Ralph, and the two, accompanied by Ralph's cute lawyer girlfriend Pam, reluctantly team up to battle criminals. Problems ensue when Ralph loses the suit's instruction book, so he had to master the suit's powers on his own."

Monday, February 20, 2006

Required Blog: Procedures

Journal Writing.

Every student keeps a journal in his or her class's labeled & decorated milkcrate stored beneath the front side table near the door. Upon entering the classroom, students grab their journals, distribute a few to some friends/neighbors, and then sit in their assigned seats before the bell rings (a strictly monitored and clearcut tardy policy is key).

A different (and I like to think provocative/entertaining/informative) prompt is written on the same part of the board every day. Students always know where to look, and always know what to do. The pens come out, the bell rings, the announcements blare, the students scribble in their journals. Sometimes I provide a word limit, sometimes time restrictions. Sometimes the energy is palpable; sometimes I've completely missed the mark.

I walk the room, greet individuals, monitor progress, distribute papers, etc.

When students finish, they copy down their HW from the front board, they correct the day's DOL, and define or study vocabulary words. The timer rings, the journals are methodically passed back to the milkcrate and re-shelved beneath the side table. It is then that the Khakied Wonder opens his fat yap: Review! Preview! Relevance! And we're off discussing today's lesson, correcting the DOL, and learning, learning, learning...

Students have a safe place to write, students practice writing from a prompt, the teacher has time to get organized. Also, this really helps to block up the time in 90-minute blocks. Occasionally, I don't have a prompt on the board, and the kids know to expect a pop quiz on these days. The routine works, but the difficulty I'm struggling with is burning the kids out on writing -- because, on the one hand, they know that I am not (and cannot!) reading/grading everything they write, and on the other hand they start to resent the "pointless" daily writing.

I remind them about state test requirements and the importance of writing fluid prose, but I still feel that I could be doing more to teach them writing -- instead of just setting them loose to write and to "figure it out for themselves" essentially. I'm starting to pull the ropes in and to focus them more on paragraphing, sentence structure, etc. Next year, I'll try to tackle these issues in September, but time has its way of slipping away...

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Follow-up Email

Let it be known that I sent the previous email (see prior blog entry) last night. Then, today, I got my 25th student in English III. And I bet you thought I was just being facetious! MLI responded encouragingly, so I ripped off the following email as my prep-period slipped away this morning:

Please share my comments with whomever you please, but bear in mind that they are only the observations of a first-year teacher -- and an outsider at that. I hope that my criticisms/insights improve students' Summer Reading experiences.

MoMo may disagree with me here (we've been going round and round on this issue), but I think "dumbing down" the required texts would be a wonderful (though probably not necessary) first step. Just as you and I will never truly appreciate a physics dissertation, we cannot expect sixth-grade readers to self-motivate and comprehend text at an advanced level on their own. Plus, how much sweeter it would be to have students actually ENJOY their Summer Reading books (e.g., My IB freshmen LOVED _The Outsiders_. Recognize, though, that this book is often read in a sixth- or seventh-grade curriculum).

Given that altering the book list is probably beyond your reach, I highly recommend weekly reading group meetings because there's strength in numbers and unity of purpose; structured reading assignments (week by week, day by day); group activities to involve the students in what they are reading and who they are reading about; opinion pieces to write so that students can interact with the stories as thinking INDIVIDUALS; student-oriented, teacher/parent-led introductions so that the books are well-received in advance of reading. Basically, TEACH THE BOOKS. Don't just drop them off in June and pick them up in August. Give Summer Reading value; visibly and constantly prioritize it, and students will come to value it as well. I leave room here for MoMo to soapbox on "valuing books" and "valuing a literary culture" (i.e., reading).

In my opinion, no more than 20% of Jim Hill's students read on grade level (and it's probably less than 15%); this includes all the IB students I've met. Shocking though it may sound, MCT, district, and NAEP scores mete out my observations. At present, Summer Reading is a well-intentioned but horribly supported and largely devalued experiment that preys upon the inabilities of our students. Every English teacher knows how to "play the Summer Reading Game" when it comes to buffering test scores with fluff grades. How else could someone who receives three test-grade zeros pass English for the term/semester/year? And this, by the way, only further confounds students' already tenuous grasp on mathematics: 0+0+0=84.

The bell just rang,
Mr. KP

An Open Letter -- Re: Summer Reading

The Mississippi Learning Institute at Jackson State University solicited my opinion on the district's mandatory Summer Reading Program. The parent-coordinator is attempting to create a Summer Reading Support Group for rising sophomores. She inquired; I responded:

Since you've CC-ed me, I'll respond with my observations -- recognizing that they are only my observations and that they do not represent the entire school.

I teach one class (24 students today, maybe more tomorrow) of eleventh-grade English. In my opinion, most of these kids read at or below an eighth-grade reading level. Maybe one of these 24 students read the required three summer reading books; maybe 3-4 students read ONE of their required summer reading books in its entirety. Test scores were abysmal. No one passed; the highest grade was a 54 (I believe). Summer-reading projects and book reports were awful as well -- most were blatantly plagiarized off the internet. Again, these are only my observations from my one class of regular eleventh graders. [It should be noted that I currently have several students in my class who transferred to Jim Hill in August and who were exempt from summer-reading requirements.]

Students certainly lack books for summer reading (but that's what libraries are for). The larger problem seems to be that the books assigned (_The Chosen_, _The Crucible_, etc.) are not even remotely accessible to culturally-illiterate vacationers at an eighth-grade reading level (What is a Jew? Who was Hitler? Where is Massachusetts?). Students need teachers to learn -- to make literature and history comprehensible and relevant. Summer reading fails because the assignments are not enforced at home (It's not as if parents were reading books alongside their children -- as a teacher would.), students have no daily incentive to read, and students have nothing external to keep them on track (i.e., reading 20 pages per day) -- and little intrinsic motivation to read "boring books" during the hot summer. The students are asked to do something very difficult for them and given little (if any) assistance. Instead, they are handed comprehension tests. In my opinion, the rare child who passes these tests is either very bright or has made ready access of sparknotes.com, etc.

I think you'll find that most rising sophomores read at a sixth-seventh grade reading level. Again, my opinion -- not fact. But here's your answer: could an average sixth-grader spend the summer COMPREHENDING _Fahrenheit 451_ or Elie Wiesel's historical reality or Anne Moody's vivid experiences? Not alone. Especially if he never tries.

I think your idea is a very good one. I hope this helps you; I'm sure it's nothing you don't already know,

Mr. Khaki Pants

P.S. I've CC-ed Mr. MoMo (the other outspoken Teacher Corps teacher at Jim Hill).