Friday, August 22, 2014

What motivates anyone to work?


While planning for the upcoming school year, I've been thinking a lot about motivation. All summer long I marveled at my stay-at-home life of leisure: first, a 2-week vacation to Taiwan, followed by a full week of severe jet lag, and now I'm wrapping up 6 weeks of knitting about 10 hours a day for fun and supervising a mostly cooperative but somewhat lazy in a normal teenager way 13 year old daughter, plus occasional sprinkles of social outings with friends and family. Who wouldn't want to do this all the time?!

"Why work?" was a recurring theme last year, my first year teaching high school students. The most popular culture reference to answer this question is Drive by Daniel Pink who is not exactly my education guru (July 2013 post "What does Daniel Pink know about public education?") even though his book A Whole New Mind tried to assure me that I as a right brainer will rule the future. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose - I'll focus on Drive's Three Big Ideas and ignore Pink's inconsistent application of those Big Ideas to public education (and parenting) to help me shape this school year's instruction.

Here are my own Three Big Ideas for this school year:

First, intrinsically motivated learning is the collective goal (for adults and teens alike), the foundation of the entire school year, and the explicit theme for the first few months. I don't expect to fix anyone's motivation problems. I just want to communicate directly and clearly that students are in charge of their own personal growth, which includes intrinsic motivation to work, delay gratification, quit complaining, etc. Instruction will include reading excerpts of The Four Agreements, reading and annotating nonfiction/current events articles, reading workshop, and basic writing conventions (capitalization, punctuation, homonyms, sentence structure, seriously, I'm not lying).

The next two Big Ideas are instructional units that relate to course/content specific goals (and yes, common core learning standards, which I mention here to increase readership of this blog). One, literary analysis unit that will include reading classic literature such as Greek mythology, The Odyssey, and Lord of the Flies, study/review of literary terms, story development, writing workshop (you guessed it - paragraphing, definitely literary analysis, maybe creative writing, probably not NaNoWriMo). Two, a brand new (to me) argument/persuasion unit that will include more nonfiction texts, Julius Caesar, research, and writing workshop. I expect to enjoy flinging logos! ethos! pathos! all around me.

Extra note about writing workshop - I'd love to move lessons beyond boring basic rules (how many ways can you teach capitalization, apostrophe, homonyms???) to ... Style! Voice! Wit!

Irony aside, those Three Big Ideas in Drive motivate me to go back to work - autonomy, mastery, and purpose. #ILOVETEACHING

Thursday, July 17, 2014

I'm a struggling student

Yoga, running, and knitting help me think about students who struggle in my class. Knitting doesn't count as much as the first two because I've gained a lot of knitting skills in a short time, but yoga and running continue to kick my butt every single practice.

Practicing yoga in class with a great teacher is satisfying and humbling! There are always poses I can do much more readily than others in the room, and there are many poses that I see others achieve and feel only awe and think "I'm probably never going to do that". Some poses (usually involving lifting the body with hands/arms) make me laugh outright because I can't even believe the human body can do that right in front of my eyes! What I love best about good yoga practice and teaching is the idea that I can always do SOMETHING, a move or pose or even (especially) intention that will help me move closer to achieving that supposedly impossible pose and, most importantly, gain the benefits of that pose without actually achieving it (yet). In essence, every "impossible" pose is possible.

Yoga isn't a perfect analogy because my students don't choose to come to my class the same way I choose to go to yoga class. Even so, I think about my students when I practice the possible parts of the impossible poses. I think about being more patient with students who struggle, offering possible parts of impossible reading or writing tasks, emphasizing the learning process as change and growth, and acknowledging success at every stage of the process.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Balanced literacy and other controversies about my job

On the first day back from a two-week vacation in Taiwan, I read online a few articles about the Balanced Literacy debate in the New York City area schools. (Here are letters to the editor that reference the published articles.) A friend and fellow English teacher directed me to one Op-Ed article, then I found others, and pretty soon my jet-lagged brain cried, "Please! Let's move on to something that doesn't hurt, like shopping for yoga pants!"

In 2003, Balanced Literacy was the model I tried to follow for the next five years teaching 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts. Then I switched to be the Academic Intervention Services teacher the next five years, which shifted/narrowed my focus to reading comprehension, particularly in the standardized testing context. At the same time, I learned a great deal about the reading workshop models promoted by Donalyn Miller and Nancie Atwell, and I devoted time and effort to reading a wide range of literature for students and teaching students to become independent readers.

This blog has chronicled my development as an English teacher since 2007, sometimes intensely in the first few years of the blog, but it has tapered off to an occasional trickle in the last few years. One main reason why I stopped blogging is that I'm tired of jostling for position in the increasingly public debates about my profession. I'm the one working every day, planning, teaching, grading, reading, writing, calling, meeting, conferencing, repeat. Occasionally I'm flattered by the attention, the same way I'm glad many faculty meetings have been devoted to the standardized test scores of my students, because of course I think my subject is important. Usually the attention is annoying and frustrating, unproductive for my work and my students' learning, and barely deserves eye-rolls from me, eye-rolls that say, "You can talk and write all you want about English instruction, you can be lauded and criticized for research and models and results, but you don't know much about my work, my students, my classroom, so I'm moving on because I have work to do."

In the first few weeks of summer vacation, I tend to move on to personal interests like traveling, knitting, shopping, and some other things that were set aside during the school year. I don't know much, but I know I busted my butt last year and worked damn hard to plan, teach, grade, read, write, call, meet, conference, and a million other things that will never show up on the New York Times. This Monday I'm going to school to plan, evaluate, okay, maybe read more about the balanced literacy debate in New York City. But as I look at my "tentative" class lists for this coming school year, I know the value of public controversies and commentaries about my students' learning, and I will make my move.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

End in sight

Good news: I've learned so many new things this school year that I must be a genius right now! Here are units that I want to teach again next year in English 10:
- Greek mythology, The Odyssey
- Lord of the Flies
- Author research combined with independent reading books
- NaNoWriMo novel writing

Here are units/topics I didn't but want to teach next year in English 10:
- Shakespeare, not sure which play
- Night and other Holocaust literature

Speaking of genius, I'm reading John Green's An Abundance of Katherines right now and quite enjoying it, unlike the first time I tried to read it a few years ago. The only JG book left to read is Paper Towns, which my daughter (age 13 hurray) is reading. I'm a big JG fan - novels, vlogs, Instagram photos, all of it. Speaking of fan, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell is next on my to-read list.

Oh wait - almost forgot the BEST NEWS! I met Laurie Halse Anderson at the Rochester Teen Book Festival last Saturday! I managed to take a picture with her before she started her talk about how and why she writes what she writes. I'm wholeheartedly inspired to write, and voila! (Also I ordered her latest book, The Impossible Knife of Memory and an earlier novel I never read, Twisted, which features a teen boy's point of view. She said she's currently writing Ashes, last book in the historical Chains trilogy.) She talked about her childhood, becoming a writer, hating high school English class and the books she was assigned to read but never did (yep, she named a few; Old Man and the Sea is all I remember; I kept chanting, please don't say Lord of the Flies, please don't say Lord of the Flies), later regretting she didn't listen to her English teachers about the writing process and revising.

The second best news is that I met another celebrity on Thursday (two in three days!) - Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, better known as the Yarn Harlot! She came to the local knitting guild to give a talk and knitting lessons. I knew she would be funny, and sure enough I almost fell out of my chair laughing, but I didn't expect her to inspire me to be even more loud and proud about knitting than I already have been. The icing on the cake was that I brought my first pair of knitted socks to show her, as I have seen from her blog that other fans do and even pose for pictures with them. After she and the ladies behind me in line commented on the different shapes of these two socks, I said they were made ten months apart, and everyone laughed. Most likely they were laughing at me, but I'm thrilled! I made the Yarn Harlot laugh! The icing on the icing on the cake is that she took our audience photo and just posted it on her blog today - we are totally famous!

WAIT! The absolute BEST ICING on top of all the icing was that, since Laurie Halse Anderson is an avid knitter, which I already knew from her Instagram pics, she was KNITTING at the book fair general assembly when all the authors introduced themselves by answering "truth or talent"!!! (She showed her talent of swearing in Danish!) BAM!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Eve


This pile of 12 student stories is one-tenth of the student work from my 2013 NaNoWriMo adventure that started with lessons and brainstorming in October, then student writing from November through early December, and now my grading procrastination. My own story, intended as a writing model, especially for the early lessons about plot development and other literary elements, only reached around 3000 words and involved a knitter in coastal Maine.

The top and bottom of this pile are two outliers, stories printed on home computers, color coded and annotated to indicate the required literary elements, and tucked into plastic folders. The top folder includes a neatly handwritten note: "Can you please not write on this? Thanks!"

My teaching year has been very, very full! Happy new year to you all!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

New year, new job

My new job - high school English teacher - is going well! Enjoyable, challenging, purposeful. After ten years of teaching middle school, every day is an adventure in the high school (same district) where there are more familiar student faces than unfamiliar colleagues. I have about 110 students in the English 10 course and 60 in the AIS course (remedial/support, mix of all four grade levels within every section), so "information overload" is my middle name right now. The school day schedule is earlier, 5:30 am is my wake-up, 10:00 pm is bedtime, and "tired" hits me AFTER I arrive home and eat a hearty snack, which can be remedied by a nap.

Big kids! No doubt, big kids, big kid problems. Thankfully, we have literature, we have language, we have words, and we'll get to work.




Photos from my visit at the Chautauqua Institution with friends to see Paul Simon and Billy Collins in the amphitheater, where they talked about writing, read poetry, and played music. The second photo shows our attempt to stalk them after the event. We left Chautauqua with no close-up encounters with the stars but many, many words.

May your days be full of literature, language, and words.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What does Daniel Pink know about motivating students?

That's not a sarcastic or rhetorical question. I read his book Drive about a year ago and just borrowed a library copy of his new book To Sell is Human. I scribbled quite a few margin notes when reading Drive, and listed some thoughts here:


Pink states 3 elements of motivation - autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Generally, I understand this line of thinking, except there are problems applying them to education:

The autonomy element is super hard in a public school setting - give students (and teachers) choice of task (possible), time (can't imagine this can be a true choice!), technique (possible, but perhaps not for teachers given scripted lessons), team (usually not a choice).

The mastery element is easier for students who accept challenges (and "pain" and effort) as a natural part of learning (and achieving success), and very hard for students who give up easily. That's taught at home, before they show up at school

The element of purpose - Very hard for middle (and high?) schoolers to see the purpose for achieving mastery when they will get promoted to the next grade without achieving mastery. So.... That's both developmental (because they are too young to realize they're growing bad habits now, to make choices based on long-term goals) and institutional (social promotion).

Pink states that intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity, and controlling extrinsic motivation is detrimental to creativity (p. 30) - he lists the 7 deadly flaws of "carrots and sticks" on page 59. I take exception to his reading prize example on p. 58 - if students are given a prize for reading 3 books, many won't pick up a fourth, let alone embark on a lifetime of reading. This glib critique ignores the long-term process and nature of reading, which depends on taking many small steps toward mastery. Not that I'm taking this PERSONALLY or anything, but the teacher in me says, you don't know much about teaching in a public middle school, do you?

One case in point, in the next section, he gives one situation when carrots and sticks DO work - when the task is ROUTINE (p. 62). TA-DA! The skills of reading and writing start with formulas (examples: writing conventions, literature circle roles and tasks), I.e. ROUTINE. These routine tasks develop into habits, and with proper instruction, guidance, and support, and THEN artful and creative reading and writing evolve. (Side note - don't we all know writers who just "naturally" and "creatively" wrote and published a first novel, and readers like us say, hmmm, you could've used some of my "6 traits of writing" lessons.) So how do we motivate students through the formulaic (Pink's word is algorithmic) stages of reading and writing? Pink's own analysis answers: extrinsic motivators.

I can't resist one more: he gives this tip to parents - give your kids allowance and some chores, but don't combine them (p. 177). My reaction: does he have kids? He explains: this sends kids a clear (and clearly wrongheaded) message: in the absence of a payment, no self-respecting child would willingly set the table, empty the garbage, etc. But those tasks are clearly ROUTINE tasks, so based on his analysis, carrots and sticks would be okay.


I've been reading much more this summer than past summers, not sure why, such as the terrific novel Where'd You Go, Bernadette on the plane ride home from our California vacation. The public library has been my reading hero - "just browsing" yielded happy surprises, such as TWO follow-up novels to The Adoration of Jenna Fox (I really didn't know!) and Jim Trelease's The Read Aloud Handbook, 7th edition (2013). I cannot believe I didn't know about Trelease's work before yesterday!

Happy summer reading, everyone!

PS - I can't resist sharing a photo of our California trip that included short visits to Yosemite National Park, San Francisco, and Lake Tahoe. This is the Lyell Fork that feeds into (from?) the Tuolumne River at Yosemite.


PPS - can't resist sharing a few other summer pics! Yummy haul from our CSA farm share....



And the first sweater I've managed to finish knitting! I have a knitting attention deficit problem, can't seem to finish big projects. (Cowl scarves, hats, mittens, etc. are my specialty.) This raglan cardigan pattern was a simple, one-piece construction.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Brand new day

I will follow this rule of literature - no one cares to read happy stories all the time - and explain that I wrestled with the monster of standardized testing for six months, during which time it stun-gunned my sunny outlook on life, and I karate-chopped my way out of cruel and unusual mazes. After many zig-zag twists and turns and one blind-faith leap into a new dimension called High School English, I'm back in the blog while resting in a meadow filled with daisies, sunflowers, dragonflies, and bunnies, just for a short time.

Here in the meadow, I'm reading The Fault of Our Stars by John Green. The contrasts of grief and humor, life and death, profound and profane, all feel just right.

Speaking of places far from (my) daily battles in public education, the first picture below is Kiawah Island, South Carolina last April, and the second features my mother in Moscow, Russia a few days ago.



Enjoy your meadow days!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Chuckles and thrills

To demonstrate the authentic value of chuckles and thrills that I mentioned in the last post, I present here a few "oh man, you just had to be there" moments in the informational text carousel:

Every class has a funny guy, right? The student who loves attention and amuses his or her peers endlessly. This was the exact person who chose the penguin book with a chapter title "Jackass Penguin" boldly emblazoned across the page to share when I asked for volunteers to show "interesting visual text" from their books.

Every class has students who love cats and students who love dogs, but one class has a cat lover who shared extremely adorable cat and kitten photos from the book he chose. I promptly oohed and ahhed over every one in total agreement even though I don't love cats (or dogs), but a dog lover in the class insisted that every single cat in that book and in the universe was UGLY. This same dog lover then found a photo of a hairless cat in another book to emphasize her point, SEE? End of story.

Well, all that doesn't sound very funny when I tell it here, but like I said, you had to be there!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

How wide and how deep is your love of public education?

In the informational book carousel, everyone finds at least a few interesting books even though most of my students don't like to read, don't want to read, and/or don't think reading is cool. A variety of books is critical to holding student interest in the lesson itself, which is usually a reading and/or writing skill practice. It also exposes students to the Big Wide World of Life that's typically more than they see in their own life and in the social media they choose to ingest. Additional benefits: physical activity for students, quiet classroom for teacher sanity.

Two main carousel complications:

1. Set-up of materials takes time and effort, but the payoff of solid planning is excellent. Invest in authentic reading material, and keep the paper/writing materials simple. I usually write my own questions, based on the goals for student learning and student needs. If I don't have stellar school library resources, I would borrow public library books since I can monitor student use closely.

2. Managing the flow of students through stations requires constant vigilance. I try to vary the the questions based on learning goals/needs, but there will always be some students who work quickly and some slowly.


Say what we will about the ills of high-stakes standardized tests, but the vast majority of students who score below grade-level proficiency and have to take my class are not strong readers, meaning (to me) they don't read deeply or widely. A small minority may enjoy reading a narrow range of genres or topics ("Do you have any more Wimpy Kid books? The Hunger Games? Football or hockey?), and they tend to read for chuckles and thrills. Both are authentic reader experiences, but neither wide nor deep reading.

How wide or deep should students be reading? I'm not sure that's the right question, considering generally low to mediocre expectations of academic character in American society. Let's focus on excellent academic character, emphasize the value of struggling through challenges with hard work and determination to realize long-term goals. Sometimes working harder is smarter - apply Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour "outliers" rule.

As for the use of standardized tests to scapegoat educators and bankrupt public education, I bet the enterprising folks pocketing insane millions of tax dollars (Pearson, I'm talking about you and your buddies) are happy with their 10,000 hour investment in the study and practice of making money. How wide and how deep is your love of money compared to your love of public education?