Friday, April 30, 2010

Omg, We Did It!

This is it! The last blog of the April literacy challenge. Can you believe what a spectacular success this challenge has been?! This has been an amazing achievement by all, if I do say so myself.

Today I discussed feminist criticism with my juniors, and I read some beliefs that feminist critics hold to the class.

I heard one kid make some kind of crack about feminism, but I promptly set him straight:

"You are probably a feminist," I told him confidently.

"Why?" he said.

"Do you believe that women should be equal to men?"

Really what could he say to this but yes?!

"Then you're a feminist," I smiled.

Then, we all looked for passages that revealed patriarchy and gender stereotypes and constructs in The Great Gatsby and wrote meaning statements.

I read some other stuff today, too, including a reprimand from my assistant principal for failing to take my attendance regularly this week. Obviously, I wish I hadn't read that, but I'll admit I should have recorded my attendance. Which I then did immediately.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Two More Days

The Poem in Your Pocket extravaganza was fun. The juniors especially enjoyed the video of one word poems by seventh graders that I located via Google. After we watched this video, kids wrote their own one-word poems about the PiYP activity.

Most of the poems had positive connotations. My own was "hopeful."

One of the poems pretty much broke my heart. It was "fruitless."

But, that's life with teenagers, people. You never know what will depress them beyond belief. Sometimes it can be 10 minutes of a poetry exchange and a funny video by seventh-graders.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

And All Because of the Literacy Challenge

Today, I took my juniors to the library to look for their Poems in Their Pockets for tomorrow. My great librarian put out the books and socialized with the kids during this process, helping them to pick poems that they might actually like. This is a benefit of having a librarian. Let it go on record that I believe every school should have a librarian that knows about books and cares about kids.

"Do we have to write down the poem, or can I just check out the book?" some of the kids asked.

"Well, the poem has to be in your pocket," I explained, "so you probably have to write it down."

"But what about if I take a picture of it with my cell phone?" they said.

"And then will it be in your pocket?"

"Yes!" they said.

I agreed this would be fine, as long as they could read the poem from the cell phone picture. We checked, and we found that they could. Hooray for technology, once again!

I decided we'd do a Give One Get One with the poems in class tomorrow. This will require the kids to trade poems with each other for awhile. Then at the end of the Give One Get One, they can decide to keep the poem they're holding or trade back for their own. This might be troublesome for the cell phone kids, except I was thinking they could decide to message their photos to each other.

After that, I think they'll have to write a one word poem about the experience. I got this idea from Dorothy Menosky from a comment she wrote on a different literacy challenge blog. Guess what? I've never met Dorothy Menosky, but I follow her on twitter and we're friends on Facebook and I've seen her photographs on JPG and she's given me book recommendations all because of different types of literacy.

I told the juniors they'd be intrisically rewarded for doing PiYP, but they suggested an extrinsic reward, too. I said, why not? I'm thinking of a couple of options involving showing their pocketed poem to as many of the 1900 students in our school as possible.

Thank you literacy challenge. Thanks for changing my April 29th for the better.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Day 27

Today was much better. I did not cry at school. Instead, in Blended English, I sat outside with some small groups reading an article called "An African Voice: Chinua Achebe, author of one of the most enduring works of modern African literature, sees postcolonial cultures taking shape story by story."

It was an optional session, so only kids who were interested in this topic attended, and we had a fabulous time talking about dispossession, "the balancing of stories," and the way Africa is portrayed in the media.

Tonight, I'm headed to the Glee-like choir concert, JV version. The varsity is in a couple of weeks, and I'll probably go to that one twice.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Best Year Ever

It's time to give up the ghost. It's not the best year ever. It's pretty much the worst year ever. That point was particularly clear when I was screaming at the top of my lungs in the teacher work room this morning at 8:20am.

I screamed later in front of a student who was in to get me to sign a form about his attendance contract. He laughed at me, but to be fair, it probably was funny to see me shaking my fists and screaming.

Later, I accidentally started crying at the lunch table.

So, pretty much, this year blows. I mean, let's be real.

Something that doesn't blow is this tweet I read today:

@editorgurl is the actual editor of Birthmarked by Caragh O'Brien, my favorite blogging topic of the month. I was really excited that she, Nancy Mercado, editor of the book, may have listened to my podcast. And then somebody else I don't know also re-tweeted that tweet because they follow Nancy, adding that she loved O'Brien's YA novel.

This is the power of the internet! Unfortunately, the power of the internet is not enough to counteract the power of the Worst Year Ever. I'm not sure how I'm going to survive the next seven weeks. I'll do it somehow, but I might not be as delightful as I was before.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

I Tried Ice-Dipping for My Shin Splint.

I made a podcast about Birthmarked by Caragh O'Brien. I've blogged about this book a few times this month already. The reality is it takes me awhile to finish books because I'm always reading two others for school. Also, I don't finish books I don't really like.

I did like this book, and you can hear my podcast about it at this link.

Five days to go on this challenge. What are we going to do about prizes?!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

I Have A Shin Splint, I'm Pretty Sure

When I first read The Great Gatsby in eleventh grade, my teacher did not point out that at the end of Chapter 2, Nick sleeps with Mr. McKee from NYC.

I didn't catch this as a teenager, but I certainly see it now. Apparently lots of people think that Nick is gay and that Gatsby might be gay, too.

In the paragraphs before Nick goes to the elevator and then to Mr. McKee's apartment, Tom dramatically breaks Myrtle's nose. It's easy to be distracted by all the blood.

Friday, April 23, 2010


On our way home, I tried to get Shef to tell me about his day. He hates to do this.

"Who was your Friday Friend today?" I asked.

"I don't remember," he said, sighing deeply.

"You don't remember?" I continued. "Well, who did you play with?"

"Oh," he said, resigned. "it was Hanna."

"Well, that's great," I said. "What did you guys do?"

"I don't know how to explain it," Shef said.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I just don't know how to explain it."

I thought this was kind of ridiculous, and after a few more clarifying questions, he finally admitted that he and Hanna had played with some small wooden blocks.

"Ok, Mom," he said, after this painful interrogation. "I'm going to read this book now." It was the Star Wars graphic novel. And so what happened here was that literacy provided an easy escape for him from this important conversation.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Birthday, Sarah! Happy Birthday, Devin! Happy Birthday, Rachel!

Right now I'm reading a short story by Fitzgerald called "Winter Dreams." It's fine. I assigned it as a precursor to The Great Gatsby, which we'll start tomorrow.

"I heard that book sux," one junior told me.

If I were Pronto, I probably would have said, "You suck," but instead I asked for attention and made a big announcement.

"The Great Gatsby changed my life. I love it. It made me want to dedicate my life to literacy education. And I don't want to hear a single bad thing about it."

I'm sure that's all it will take.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Just Like a Dream

I'm about to make myself read eight literary analysis papers.

I'm conflicted about the literary analysis. On the one hand, it requires close reading and critical thinking; and that's good.

On the other hand, it's kind of stupid as a genre.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sue Sylvester, Dance on Air

I have to write fast, so I can GLEE!

Rosalyn told me that there are some disturbing racial hierarchies perpetuated in that show; but Rosalyn, did you know there's also MADONNA?!

I could have used a little Madonna at school today. A little "Isla Bonita" would have softened up the email message that took the wind out my pilot project, for sure. A few bars of "Like a Prayer," and maybe the system would have let me FTP the sophs' new podcasts. As it happened, I couldn't do that on my own, but I was rescued by a "Lucky Star" in the form of the tech integrationist; and now you can hear segments about The Right To Read Around the World here, here, and here.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Day 19

I read some reflections by students on how they're doing in the blended course. They're doing pretty well. Some of them (about five of the seventy-two) continue to complain about "busy work," which confuses me because I have completely eliminated busy work from their lives. I think some kids equate ANY work with busy work.

It makes me kind of want to add some busy work back INTO their lives, to tell you the truth.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Goodbye, Ratface

A couple of weeks ago, I grabbed Superfudge on CD from the Hennepin County Library for Shef and me. We like to listen to books on CD on our commute, and I remember laughing my head off at that book as a kid.

It turns out I laughed my head off because Fudge is hilarious. He says all kinds of crazy stuff and he kicks his Kindergarten teacher and puts trading stamps all over his baby sister.

I'm counting on Shef not to repeat any of this Fudgie behavior. He laughed extra hard when Fudge called his teacher, "Ratface," and when his bird, Uncle Feather, said, "Bon jour, stupid."

Now we're reading the first of the Fudge books, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, in which Fudge is two years-old. It goes without saying that he bears a striking resemblance to a certain almost-two-year-old that Shef and I know extremely well.

Our little tyke has taken to saying, "Come on, Sheffie!" We both think that's pretty cute.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Give Him a Fire in His Heart

Shef and I have been on the move today doing about a million errands.

One of them was to the library, where Shef picked out two graphic novels based on the Star Wars movies. This made all the rest of the errands tolerable for both of us:

I read a bit of Birthmarked during the practice portion of Shef's basketball league. And I might have read a little bit during the game.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

One Marred By A Scar

My book club met with Caragh O'Brien tonight, author of Birthmarked. I really wished I'd finished the book before the meeting. Instead, I'm only about half way through her great story, a fact I confessed to her immediately.

Luckily, Caragh is an English teacher herself (English 9, English 11, and Broadcast Journalism), so she totally understood my reading-time dilemma.

She also didn't seem to mind when we asked her millions of questions about her writing process and getting the book published and writing the sequels and other dystopic fiction. She also seemed fine with my request for a photo and the whole literacy challenge blog aspect of my needs. She even wished me luck in the blogging challenge in the inscription she signed in my book. Now I feel destined for success.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Will Somebody Please Just BUY OUR HOUSE ALREADY?

I read about a bizillion things today, but the thing I read twice was the proctor checklist for part two of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment. The kids reported that the test articles were extremely boring and that they guessed on the poem questions. I hope they guessed right.

Later in the day, I taught a dynamic lesson on Chapters Eight through Fifteen of Things Fall Apart. In the last fifteen minutes of class, I directed the students to finalize their podcast scripts, since we're recording a podcast about "the right to read around the world" tomorrow. I sat down at my desk to finish my sandwich, while a group in the corner played musical instruments (part of their podcast segment), another group rapped quietly, and several pretended to be broadcasters. And, of course, some groups were just wasting time.

Anyway, I was mid-bite in my sandwich and sort of paying attention to the chaos when my principal came in.


"Hi!" the principal beamed. The musical instruments played on and a couple of kids came up to ask to go to the bathroom. "I just came to see how the blended course was going."

It's going just fine, I told him. I'm working super hard.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Track Ladies 2010: First Workout of the Season In the Bag.

Today, I read the inane directions for administering the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment. I'm sorry to say, the system for deciding which schools pass No Child Left Behind is COMPLETELY RIDICULOUS.

Not only do you NOT test the same group of kids from year-to-year ("improvement" is measured based on whether this year's sophomores can out-perform last year's sophomores), but we have to attend meetings at 7:15am to be told that just in case a kid pukes on his test, DO NOT THROW THAT TEST AWAY! WE MUST RETURN THE TEST BOOKLET!

And, did you sign the monitor sheet? And did you number the booklets? And did you bubble in your Form number? And did you put on the stickers after each segment? And DID YOU CHECK YOUR ANSWERS, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD?

Yes, this morning 100 professionals spent three hours making kids read zero-interest articles and escorting sixteen year-olds to the bathroom one-at-a-time.

I'm sorry legislature, but this standardized testing system - this incredibly high-stakes testing system that forces schools to focus almost solely on remediation - is just... I can't even tell you how stupid it is.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Tomorrow We Have Our NCLB Assessment

I read a review in The New Yorker of a play about Mark Rothko. The play sounds riveting, and I'd love to see it.

I marked up the review for my juniors to use as a model to use in writing about their choice plays on the wiki. I wasn't so impressed by their first wiki check. Part of the problem is that some groups just didn't do their assignments at all. I have hope that they'll do the assignments this week. Why not? I might as well hope.

I'm also holding out hope that I'll be able to see plays again someday. Someday when the children are a little older and don't require me to lie down with them for 45 minutes per evening.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

I Have One More Play to Study Tonight and Then a Boat-Load of Grading That Won't All Get Done.

On my run today (2 hours and 15 minutes - the marathon is approaching!), I listened to two great episodes of This American Life, which I think is just my absolute most favorite literacy activity these days.

The first episode I heard was about Nummi, a car plant in California that was a joint venture between Toyota and GM. It opened in 1984, and it had the potential to break the GM mold and save the company. The episode explained why that didn't happen. One big reason was the bad relationship and distrust between the UAW and GM.

This made me think of my ongoing ambivalence about being a union member. On the one hand, I support my union negotiators because I cannot negotiate my own salary. On the other hand, I think the union has some major problems. This is one of the only things on which I agree with Tim Pawlenty, governor of this great state.

I haven't worked with many bad teachers, but I have definitely worked with some. I think it should be easier to fire these under-performers. I also feel that the union tenure and seniority systems make it harder for school districts to be flexible with new parents and working schedules. Further, I feel that within the current system, there is no monetary benefit for working harder, learning more, and being innovative. That's wrong, IMO.

I don't know what to do about these problems. I have one idea, which is to raise the starting pay of teachers from 30k to 50k. Then, instead of having steps (a raise each year, just for sticking around), you only get a raise when you actually do something great. Like getting a master's degree or creating a program that benefits student performance and/or school climate. I don't want it to be easy for districts to get rid of older teachers, and I think my system makes it so districts wouldn't save as much money by doing this.

Maybe the republicans can figure out how to make this plan work. But, I kind of doubt it because they always want to pin everything on test scores, which we all know is totally wrong.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Samuel L. Jackson was in The Piano Lesson Once

I'm reading The Piano Lesson by August Wilson for the first time. That's something interesting about being an English teacher, actually. You re-read a lot of books. Dan was surprised that I actually bother to re-read each year, but you have to. I don't know a single English teacher who doesn't. Some of the books get better with re-reading (all of the ones by Cormac McCarthy), and some lose a little bit of their magic (Peace Like a River, for one).

Anyway, I'm reading Wilson's Pulitzer-winner (his second Pulitzer) for the first time. It's about a money dispute between brother and sister. It hinges on a piano that dates from the time the family was in slavery in Mississippi. I'm not sure what I think about it, yet.

In addition, I read Birthmarked for an hour at a coffee shop, and I was intrigued. The main character is a teenaged midwife in a dystopic society. She's supposed to hand over a certain number of babies per month to "The Enclave," which is a community of privileged people who live within a wall.

Reading alone at a coffee shop was a delight, and I needed this solitude to fortify myself for Shef's rock climbing party this afternoon. That party was a real challenge.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Attention Must Be Paid

Death of a Salesman is a really terrific piece of work by Arthur Miller. I admire it so much and am so heartbroken by the failures and disappointments of the Loman family.

Kids, however, don't seem to like it that much. I think it's because DOAS is not a young person's play. You have to at least be Biff's age to get the emotional impact, I think.

So, instead of reading the whole thing, we're watching the film version starring Dustin Hoffman, and the kids are reading some other plays as choice texts. This was a great idea, except now I have to be super familiar with those other plays. I'll be reading a lot this weekend.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Wow. I Look Really Horrible in This Video.

This has been a tough week because I've been working really hard at school, Dan's been working really hard at his job, and it's been nice outside. So after those hard days at work, the kids want to go outside to play. With us. After dinner.

Also what makes me tired is Mac not sleeping; however, tonight he did put himself to bed after a few minutes of crying. I am praying to Mary for a full-night's sleep. I always go with Mary because she was a mother, too. Even though sometimes she fails me, repeating those Hail Marys gives me something to do while I'm waiting for the sleeplessness to end.

Anyway, you can tell I'm tired because a) I just look tired in this video that also has weird lighting; and b) I call the April blogging challenge the August blogging challenge. Twice.

TokBox - Free video chat and video messaging

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Today I Probably Wouldn't Have Blogged Unless I Had To

I regret to announce that I'm giving up on Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna. Kingsolver is one of my favorite writers; however, I gave this book 103 pages, and I'm still not invested. I crossed the 100-page threshold while I was sitting in Mac's room, holding the book up to the crack of light from the open door.

I'm disappointed that I didn't like this offering, but I'm happy to have read Kingsolver's other works.

At school today, I read the staffing assignments for next year. It turns out I'm giving up the sophs for some juniors and seniors. The seniors I have will be taking a class called Mass Media. I've never taught this class before, and I feel like it could go in about a million different directions. Probably the kids in there will want to continue the podcast, don't you think?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Series of Unfortunate Bedtimes

After Mac climbed like a ninja from his crib the other night, we had to revamp bedtime. Now, he is sleeping on his crib mattress on the floor.

The problem with this is that he can just stand up, walk to the door, open it, and scream loudly that he's displeased with his situation. However, I've found that if I lie down next to him, he'll be quiet and pretend like he's going to sleep.

About 45 minutes after I arrange myself on the crib mattress, he's ACTUALLY asleep; and I can sneak out. If I try before that, he wakes up and comes to the door and registers his many, many, many complaints.

I would have read some parenting advice websites about this problem if I thought they could help. Sadly, I've had the hope of better sleep beaten out of me, and I don't really even try anymore.

I did read the opening of Sherman Alexie's young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It seems good. I bet some other challenge participants have read it already.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Monday And the Start of Two New Units

I read so much today, you can't even believe it. I started by reading an article on American Drama in the dull American Lit textbook I occasionally use. Then, I read synopses of the four plays I'm teaching in addition to Death of a Salesman. The kids get a choice of those four, which include Fences, The Piano Lesson, The Glass Menagerie, and A Raisin in the Sun.

After that I read some comments by Arthur Miller on the nature of tragedy, which he claims is the highest art. Also, I read a poem by Auden and one by Dickinson which we'll discuss tomorrow to develop the concept of tragedy.

Later, I read some background information on Chinua Achebe and the Ibo people of Nigeria. Later tonight, I'll re-read chapters one and two of his novel, Things Fall Apart. I might also re-read Act I of Death of a Salesman, which I mentioned above.

After school, I read some marginal essays on In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. I also skimmed a bunch of creative writing projects that I'd already heard presented aloud.

Finally, I read some complainy emails about the grades some kids EARNED ALL ON THEIR OWN.

Being a literacy educator can be a lot of work, but it can also be rewarding. That's just my opinion.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Best Easter Ever

I have a history of having a poor attitude about the West family Easter Festivities. That's because, as Dan likes to point out, I'm generally against fun. But this year, as it's the best year evah, I was EXTREMELY POSITIVE. Here's photographic evidence of my infectious enthusiasm courtesy of Auntie Phee:

As you can see, my brother Kevin and I rocked the Easter Egg Hunt as Team K2.

Before the party, I went for a two-hour run, on which I listened to some great podcasts. That counts as a literacy activity, I hope you know. One of the podcasts I listened to was The Moth. This episode was a story about a woman surviving a shipwreck and a shark attack. It was a pretty horrific story, but the teller managed to infuse quite a lot of humor into it. I admired that, and it affirmed my personal life philosophy that almost anything is worth laughing at least a little bit.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

I Didn't Do Any of My Homework. I'll Pay on Monday.

This has been a fabulous spring break in Vail with our kids and Dan's parents. Sadly, like all fabulous things, this too must wane. Goodbye, Vail! Goodbye, Ryan Sutter! I'll miss you, Lindsey Vonn!

In 48 hours I'll be back in Room 262 prepping a new unit on American Drama, and also standing on the edge of the precipice which is my blended English 10 class. This course is a mix of online and face-to-face instruction, and I'm using all kind of tech tools to try to get the kids to do new things and think in new ways about literature and literacy. It's a pilot, and I'm the teacher.

When I explained some of the details to my fifth hour class, one of the smarties raised his hand to ask, "And what if this totally fails?"

I was conveniently prepared to answer him, as I'd recently reconceptualized failure with the help of Gretchen Rubin, who encouraged me to enjoy the fun of it, rather than to avoid it by not being innovative.

Also, a great colleague keeps sending me helpful resources like this one about increasing engagement on a Ning.

I hope I can do a good enough job at being a blended teacher. I'm pretty sure I can.

Friday, April 2, 2010

I'm So Happy

It's the best year ever for many reasons, but partly because we now have about a bizillion participants in the April Blogging Challenge. Check out the sidebar at the right. You'll see we now have challenge participants that I've never met (Shannon), challenge participants that are six years-old (Shef), and challenge participants that haven't exactly given me permission to link them (Mary).

Today I spent a lot of time reading the challenge blogs. I've also read quite a bit of commentary on the iPad, which I'm sure you know is being released tomorrow by Apple.

Here's what happened to me: I read and heard a couple of positive reviews and now I want an iPad so bad I could spit. The negative reviews didn't phase me because those haters don't know what the heck they're talking about.

I want the "invisible operating system"!

I want "media to come alive"!

I want "the future of computing"!

I'm pretty susceptible to advertising and testimonial. This works against me in many ways. I probably shouldn't have admitted this weakness to the world right here, right now; but in the name of this great challenge, I had no choice.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

So Happy We Have So Many Participants in the Challenge!

I've been collecting links to write about for the April Literacy Challenge. I think it'll have to be websites and articles because I am having a problem with novel-reading, despite the fact that I love novels and that I'm currently reading a novel I've been anticipating for years: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.

The problem is that I fall asleep within paragraphs of reading this book. That's because I exist in a state of chronic sleep deprivation, which I have chronicled at length on this blog. As you may know, I haven't regularly slept through the night in six years and three months.

I generally try not to read articles about the dangers of sleep deprivation because they usually make me feel bad about a situation I can't fix, though I've TRIED AND TRIED.

But, about a year ago, I did read an article about sleep deprivation and memory. The article said that the reason people who are sleep deprived tend to be depressed is that a sleep-deprived brain has trouble creating happy memories. It turns out negative memories are easier to make. Isn't that weird? I can't find a link to that article right now, but I thought of it when I read Janet Malcolm's blog for the NY Review of Books. She wrote this lovely description of the role of memory in autobiography (and I think blogging, too):

Memory is not a journalist’s tool. Memory glimmers and hints, but shows nothing sharply or clearly. Memory does not narrate or render character. Memory has no regard for the reader. If an autobiography is to be even minimally readable, the autobiographer must step in and subdue what you could call memory’s autism, its passion for the tedious. He must not be afraid to invent. Above all he must invent himself.

One good thing about this blog, even though I do invent things from time to time (I admitted this many years ago when James Frey was outed) the memories I record here are mostly happy ones.