Archive for November, 2011

Sexual harassment in school: a real test

This survey came out a few weeks ago, but I’m still thinking about it.

The survey, conducted by the American Association of University Women, looks at sexual harassment in grades 7-12. Sadly, I can’t imagine that the results are very surprising to any teacher, or to anyone who remembers what school was like. (I wonder how constant this has been. It’s too bad no one asked these questions generations ago.)

The survey (of almost 2,000 students) found that 56% of girls and 40% of boys experienced some sexual harassment during the past year. Honestly, that number sounds like it could be a little low. The survey designers defined sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically.” I just think there are probably kids who don’t even realize that what they’re hearing is “unwelcome” or necessarily sexual.

The most common form of harassment, as the survey broke it down, was “sexual comments, gestures, or jokes.” 46% of girls reported dealing with that. Again, this couldn’t be surprising to a teacher. We hear it all day long, and there’s plenty of places we can look for the root causes. But I don’t think that’s really our job. Our job – one more part of it, one more often overlooked and and under-appreciated part of it, one more part of it for which we are usually untrained – is to address it when we hear it and to treat it seriously.

The survey found that 87% of those who experienced some sexual harassment reported negative effects “such as absenteeism, poor sleep and stomachaches,” according to the New York Times article. All three of those side-effects make school almost impossible.

When it comes to “being called gay or lesbian in a negative way,” 18% of girls and 18% of boys answered yes. But, again, I think every teacher would bet, based on only anecdotal evidence, that such language is more ubiquitous than that suggests. That survey question reflects direct language (i.e., “you’re so gay”, and not indirect language (“this story is gay”) which we hear all the time, and which has to be almost as harmful).

I’m not sure what we do here. I suppose, like so much else, it comes down to every teacher being on the same page and being consistent about how we run our classrooms. I make a big deal about the negative gay language, and I’ve had a few students actually tell me (after class, of course) how much they appreciate the stand I take. They tell me that most teachers just pretend not to hear it.

The “sexual comments, gestures, or jokes” might actually be a little more complicated to address. They’re getting the message that those jokes are acceptable from a lot of different places. Heck, I push them to find the sexual jokes in the text when we read Shakespeare (“Why, then, is my pump well flowered?”).

When I try to teach feminist literary theory to seniors, I get a ton of push-back from both the boys and the girls. “You’re just reading too much into every little thing,” or “People could just be overly sensitive about anything.” These are the kinds of things I hear when I point out misogynistic language or themes in texts or in the media.

So it’s understandable, on one level, why teachers will turn the other ear, so to speak. We have to choose our battles, and we can’t always put aside ten minutes of class time (or more) to address a side comment we heard muttered in the back corner. We’ve probably got a test coming up we have to prepare them for.

But that’s just it. We do have a test coming up: are they going to be good people? But I don’t even think that’s one of the Common Core State Standards.


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I like how some kids write down their homework these days

I think this is a good example of one of those things teachers should get used to and encourage.

My first instinct when, after I directed students’ attention to the board where I had written a homework reminder, I saw them whip out their phones was, predictably, “NO! BAD!”

But I didn’t say that, because I have seen this before, and once I realized what they were doing, I was proud of them. I don’t see any reason to push onto students a study skill or organizational strategy that may have worked for us back in the paper age but that might be completely inauthentic to them. I definitely couldn’t argue that writing down homework in a day planner works well for my students.

There are still plenty of pen-and-paper kids, for sure. But there are plenty of kids who would never look at a piece of paper, or a planner, and these kids might look at their phones every few minutes. For these kids, taking phone pictures of the homework board is great idea.

So, “Everybody write down the homework” should probably turn into, “Everybody write down or take a picture of the homework.” I don’t say that yet, though. It still sounds too weird to me.





Raise your hand if you love great librarians

I’m raising my hand.

It’s remarkable how much of an impact a great librarian can have on the teaching and learning that happens in a school. I have no idea who the librarian was at the high school I went to, and it was a very good high school. I don’t know if that person worked behind the scenes with my teachers, if the roles of librarians have changed, or if I just happen to be especially lucky right now to have one who works so closely with us and provides so much practical support.

At the beginning of the school year, I bring all my students down to our library to give them a chance to browse for a book for SSR (sustained silent reading). Our librarian, Kristin McKeown, has a library classroom stocked with her own “staff picks” of the library’s most appealing (and provocative) books, arranged into a few broad categories. She then conducts a short mini-lesson during which she generates a ton of student interest and buy-in for independent reading.

But it’s the research project that prompted this post right now. All 9th grade teachers in my department embark on a collaboratively planned research assignment around now, and Kristin is instrumental in it. I won’t go into the instruction she provides for students when they’re down in the library, but I just wanted to share something new she has done this year: a series of Jing videos outlining the many steps of the research process that she has posted on the library’s website.

Here’s one of the four videos that make up Day 1 of research in the library: “Developing Basic Knowledge: Using a double-bubble map.”

She used Jing to make the videos (and Inspiration for the drawing of the thinking maps – a district-wide focus for us this year). I haven’t used that myself yet, but she says it’s very easy, and so does Nik Peachy. Due to the number of anticipated views, she had to pay a monthly fee to Screencast to host them. (Youtube is free, of course, but, as Kristin put it, “we have obvious access issues there.”)

I’m so excited that these videos are there for my students. One of the most surefire headaches for both students and teachers when it comes to these projects is when a student is absent for one of the library research days. This has always been one of those problems that seems insurmountably complicated. And it always happens, of course. And to many, many students. Every year. And still, each time a student returns to class and asks “What’d I miss?” I end up scratching my head in futility, wondering how I’m possibly ever going to catch them up.

Some analogies:

  • I know that my morning commute always take me around 35 minutes to get to work, and I know where the typical slowdowns are. But I still feel surprised and frustrated when I get to them.
  • Or when there’s an ongoing construction project that I should have anticipated, but when I get to it, the detour still throws me for a loop.
  • Or when I’m surprised by how many calories are in a milkshake or a cheeseburger.

Anyway, problem solved.

Go to this site, watch the videos. Come see me if you have any questions. Done.

Then there are the students who are so excited that they are in the library instead of in the classroom, sitting next to a friend instead of a non-friend, and in front of a computer instead of a row of desks, that there’s no way they’ll be able to pay attention to the live instruction.

And, of course, there are all those students with different learning needs for whom a video that they can stop and start at their leisure will allow them to go at a pace that ensures they can more fully understand all the steps in the process.

These are all points that are argued in the flipped classroom debate, but in this context it seems like a no-brainer. We’re still doing class time the way we’ve always done it, but if you missed it, in any sense of the word “missed,” here it is again, all spelled out for you.

Why don’t we do this for kids all the time? Because we don’t all have great librarians.

Okay, you can put your hand down now.

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CTRL+F & “The Lottery”

This is a pretty simple point, but sometimes I’m surprised by how helpful CTRL+F (or Command+F on a Mac) can be when you’ve just got one computer and one projector in a classroom. My friend Joelle showed me this article, via EdTechSandyK, that says 90% of people don’t know about it.

I find it especially useful when discussing a short story, or any text that’s available online (like Shakespeare). When leading an activity that requires students to find textual support, it’s great to be able to instantly project that line on the screen so all the students can see it and copy it into their notes. I also enjoy showing off my mastery of a text when, within seconds, I can find the exact line a student is trying to paraphrase.

(Yes, I realize I just admitted feeling proud about something that most people would consider freakishly nerdy, but that’s okay.)

I was doing this the other day with Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” I love how many short stories are available online, by the way. And while I’m mentioning the lottery, I’d like to recommend the following (no tech) activity for anyone who might teach it.

[Don’t read this if you haven’t read the short story yet. And go read it! It’s so good.]

It happened spontaneously last year when a student asked, “Can we act out our own lottery?” They were joking, of course, but I thought about a “safe” version, using crumpled up paper as stones, and we went ahead and did it. This year, I was prepared for it, with tiny slips of paper all counted out and ready to go. I sat at a table at the front of the class, calling students up by their last names, just like in the story. They become wonderfully anxious during this, making nervous jokes, again, just as in the story. At the end, we all unfold our papers to see whose has the little black dot. That person stands in the center of the room and withstands a barrage of paper “stones.” Then I guide the students through a written reflection on the experience and how it may have generated a new understanding of Jackson’s purpose.

Here are some highlights from the reflections of one of my classes, which I typed into a 280Slides presentation to share with them tomorrow.

Funny postscript: I was observed by an administrator during this lesson, and I asked him if he wanted to participate when counting the slips of paper for the mock lottery. He agreed. Guess who pulled the “winning” ticket?

(It was the administrator.)

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Fakebook, and the allure of the low-tech option

Six or seven years ago, when I was a brand new teacher, I had the idea to make my students design Facebook profiles for characters from the novel we were reading. I believe it was one of those last minute ideas, and I didn’t even have them do it on paper; they did it on the blackboard. I assigned each group a rectangular section of the board, and they had 10 minutes to draw a mock-up of a Facebook profile, filling it in with as much information about the character as they could cram in there.

They had fun with it, if I recall correctly, and I thought it was a neat way for me to assess their familiarity with the characters. I think it also allowed the students to relate to the characters and to consider them as fully fleshed-out personalities.

A couple of years later, when my school was on a 1:1 laptop model, I had 9th graders create Myspace profiles for characters from Romeo & Juliet. I assessed them on the appropriateness of the theme they chose, given the character’s tastes, and the comments they would write to their “friends” throughout the reading of the play. This was fun for the students who did use Myspace at that time (most, not all), although it was a logistical nightmare for me. And I don’t think Myspace liked it when people made fake profiles.

So it was with great interest, and a sense of my own gradual aging process, that I saw Fakebook today, via Larry Ferlazzo’s post on the best web 2.0 tools. Fakebook basically lets you do the same thing: make a profile for a literary or historical character, complete with all the fun trimmings – photos, videos, status updates, having certain friends, etc.

This gave me a strange sense of the passage of time. And once I was done feeling old and prescient, I started thinking more seriously about having my students use this tool. But I’m wary about it here, mostly due to my increasing reluctance to assign much homework, let alone homework that requires internet access. I have a few students in each of my classes for whom internet access is not constant. I also get very poor returns on homework in general. If my school had a 1:1 laptop model, I think I’d be all over this. But without it, I’m starting to consider revisiting my old “profile on the board” idea. It’s got the buy-in that comes from tapping into knowledge of Facebook, but it lends itself to collaboration with actual peers much more easily.

And while I think it’s great that someone built a tool that looks just like Facebook to let kids tap into all the multimedia options the web provides, I also think there might be something sort of fun and novel about creating a Facebook  profile on the board. But maybe I’m just being sentimental.



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The ultimate mixed bag: Video CliffsNotes for Shakespeare

I saw this little piece in Good about CliffsNotes new enterprise: six-minute animated videos on Shakespeare’s plays.

I watched their Romeo & Juliet, and, over the course of those six minutes, I found myself on a roller coaster of reactions, from excitement to hesitation to dread to…acceptance? Not sure, let’s see where this goes.

First, here’s the Romeo & Juliet video.

Or, if you’d rather, here are the others they’ve made: Midsummer, Hamlet, Julius 

Caesar, Macbeth, or Othello. Find them all here.

Ok. First, the good.

It’s pretty entertaining, so it could be engaging to a lot of kids. And I think many English teachers share the goal, when they approach Shakespeare, to get the kids to actually enjoy the story. And that bit about jeggings at the end made me giggle.

It’s concise and thorough. I guess that’s what CliffsNotes has always done well. They crammed most of the important stuff into that video, which seems pretty hard to do.

It’s accurate. I liked the inclusion of key passages from the actual text. Students may recognize those lines more readily when they come across them in class, or they may feel more equipped to write or talk about them after having seen and heard them being spoken.

It’s visual. We always remind students that Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, not read. So, there we go.

It’s interactive. The way you con hover over a character to get the name and then read their brief overview below the video is pretty ingenious, I think. It can keep a viewer engaged on a whole other level, and those little write-ups aren’t so bad, given how brief they are. They even worked in their little theme write-ups at the end. There’s no way to really read all those while the video is running, but you can pause it if you wanted to and see them all.

So all that seems pretty great. It’s a free and easy resource for kids to use at home that might help them wrap their heads around the plot and/or engage them in the unit they’re doing in class. What’s the problem?

I guess the best way to put it is that it’s a CliffsNotes video for Shakespeare. The danger here is the same as the danger that CliffsNotes has always presented: that students will rely on this instead of reading the actual text. And, of course, that’s what most of them do, no matter how often we might tell them how evil we think that behavior is. It’s easy!

More specifically, I began to doubt the value of the Romeo & Juliet video when it got silly. In an effort to engage young viewers, Paris becomes a preening dandy and Friar Laurence a bumbling old fool. If those depictions were to color a young reader’s impressions of those characters instead of the subtleties of the text, well, I think many English teachers would shed a few tears.

Then there’s the substitution of silly for pathos. Why does Capulet need to make a joke about losing his deposit on the wedding when he finds what he believes is his dead daughter? That’s a heartbreaking part of the play, but I wouldn’t know it from the video.

My aforementioned dread came from imagining every possible scenario: A student watching the video on his phone in a bathroom stall before a test. On its own, that doesn’t bother me so much. It’s just an updated version of flipping though the paper CliffsNotes or asking a friend how it ended on the way into class to prepare for a reading quiz. Nothing really new. But then I imagined having to read an essay that describes how Romeo was able to kill Paris at the end by surprising him, since Paris “didn’t see that coming.” But, as I think about it more, that isn’t really new either. We see students regurgitate their peers’ wrong answers all the time, and that gives us a clear indicator of how we should assess their understanding (or their effort).

It all comes down to what we do in the classroom. If I taught Romeo & Juliet by assigning all the reading for homework and then giving reading quizzes on plot the next day, my students would have to watch the video. I couldn’t blame them. They’d get some stuff wrong, some stuff right, and, if I weren’t writing this blog post and therefore aware of these videos, I might be none the wiser. Those students who didn’t read the play wouldn’t get out of Shakespeare what I always hope they’ll get out Shakespeare – an appreciation for  the language and for the insights into the human condition. And that would be bad.

But there are always students who don’t do the reading. And there are always students who will seek out every shortcut they can find. And when it comes to Shakespeare, there has always been a glut of resources available to students looking for a little help or looking to cheat. That’s why it comes down to what we do in the classroom. I have to come up with activities that require some actual wrestling with the text. I have to help students explore the nuances in Juliet’s character.

But even if I’m doing those things, and working as hard as I can to provide scaffolding for my struggling students, there will still be some who feel lost. And that’s where I think videos like these have real value. We may spend a month engaging with the text in class, poring over speeches, and digging into characters’ motivations. But there will still be a handful of students at the end of that month who will not grasp how the elements of the plot fit together, or who will confuse Mercutio and Benvolio. This video is perfect for them, and I’ll probably point them in this direction when the time comes.

We discussed the Common Core State Standards in a department meeting today, and we looked at the rationale behind the focus on text complexity. Basically, high school graduates are looking seriously underprepared to do the kind of reading they’re required to do after high school, whether in college or in the workplace. So we have to make sure we’re giving them plenty of exposure to complex texts. Some people might think that allowing them to watch videos like these is another example of the coddling that has run rampant in schools, hurting our students by lowering our standards for their achievement.

But Shakespeare obviously wrote some pretty complex texts, and a video like this might provide the necessary scaffolding for some students to be able to actually engage with the text in class in a way that would previously have been out of reach.

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