Best Practices


Spurred by my recent foray into ideas for increasing critical thinking, here’s an idea that I think combines a lot of different ideas, including critical thinking and logical inference, into a skill-building activity that engages a virtually universal student interest: music.

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I got the latest edition of English Journal this week, and while I have been remiss in keeping up with past issues, I jumped for joy to see this one, which centers on one of my favorite areas of study: Logic and Critical Reasoning. I try to teach critical thinking to all of my classes, and I was excited to see what ideas were included to reinforce this absolutely vital universal subdiscipline.

I am happy to announce that I have not yet been disappointed.

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I’m up late grading papers, about to quit for the night, and somehow in my distraction, I got to thinking aimlessly.

My thoughts for some reason turned back to my eighth graders last year from student teaching, many of whom I still think about and wonder how they’re doing in high school this year. And as I thought about that, I thought about the last day of student teaching and how my cooperating teacher for that group acted.

I admit that I am a little bitter still about being robbed of a final moment with a class that was a struggle to connect with. I think singing them a song they had talked about for the majority of the time I was there would have solidified the memory, and instead, the time was spent watching narcoleptic cats, which none of the students enjoyed as much as the co-op did. And the send-off that we got as a class was almost entirely provided by me, since the teacher bailed on bringing drinks as he had agreed to.

But I am a believer in learning what I teach, and this practice has affected me profoundly during the discussion I’ve had with my sophomores over To Kill a Mockingbird. The model of Atticus Finch and his saintly heuristic of “walking in someone else’s skin/shoes” provides a high moral standard, and the fact that he turns it to people in the novel that seem at first glance to be just bad people (Mrs. Dubose, for one; Bob Ewell, for another) demonstrates how difficult it is to hold it consistently.

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I generally don’t divulge many details about what is happening in my school, and I have tried to keep a modicum of anonymity (although I know that the curious reader could probably put the pieces together). That’s for my protection as well as my students, none of whom deserve to be dragged into blog posts by name (or even gender, where I can avoid it). I know as a first-year teacher that I am in somewhat of a precarious spot, despite the fact that my position itself is not anywhere close to being on the chopping block and that I have pleased administrators enough that I think I’ll be around next year. (It also helps that I’m the third high school English teacher in as many years; the position needs some consistency.)

But I have to write about something that is happening at my school right now. It’s simply too much for me to keep in.

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It’s been a while since I last wrote here, faithful readers (I know some of you are looking around, even if you’re new to the blog). Much has happened since school started up again – so much, in fact, that I’ve been buried in other work.

But I’m ignoring all of those other things for the moment to focus on a small victory.

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You might even say it was a case in which I did actually learn my lesson.

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Or, You think I’d learn, Pt. 2.

Okay, forget the self-deprecating title of this post: I don’t think I’m stupid, but I sometimes wonder why I just don’t seem to learn. I even have a visualization for the sort of philosophy I have on teaching and learning:

Old experiences and ideas + New data and information = New understanding of the world Transforming self and external reality

Yet, when it comes to stuff that works, I don’t seem to have mastered the idea of thinking back to my best lessons and reflecting as such: Self? [Yes?] You remember that lesson that went really well? [Yeah, it was awesome; you–er, we rocked it in the class.] Well, maybe I should try that again. If it works one time, then maybe it might fit here, don’t you think? [That’s a great idea! Go you! Er, us!]

Case in point: today.

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Todd Whitaker has this little bit that he talks about in person (and he’s done it both times I’ve seen him) where he talks about teachers who say things like, “I’ve told Billy a thousand times not to do that.” His remark: “Now there’s a slow learner.” (After a few seconds, you start to realize that Whitaker’s not talking about Billy…)

Sometimes I feel like that teacher.

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Post now updated with post-data – see bottom of entry.

I have often been disappointed at the reaction that some students have had to activities I’ve prepared, especially the ones I’ve been excited about. I once tried to do an activity with eighth graders that was essentially an improvisational exercise utilizing an understanding of the four types of sentences – declarative, exclamatory, interrogative, imperative – based on an improv bit that was done on the late great improv show Whose Line Is It, Anyway? where the participants are given a certain type of sentence and can only use that type of sentence to carry on a dialogue. (The Whose Line? bit focused on questions, and they also did something similar with song titles.) I thought it would be fun and it would engage current knowledge – well, it bombed, badly. Part of it was a lack of understanding of what they needed to do, and part of it (I think) was a lack of motivation to be creative.

So when I started planning an activity today, I decided to temper my enthusiasm with a little cynicism about how well it will be received.

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And it’s not from me!

Actually, I’m really excited about this opportunity. I had the idea several weeks ago to try and find guest speakers from various cultures that would align with units of literature that our senior English course is studying. The first one was virtually a no-brainer for me: looking at the literature of Latin America would provide a wealth of opportunities to find speakers with experience in these countries so that my students could have a first-hand account of these places.

So I sent an E-mail asking for potential speakers to the chair of the modern languages department of my alma mater, and (somewhat to my surprise) I received an E-mail back saying that the information had been forwarded on to someone who was interested, even naming the individual and their majors. I was ecstatic, to say the least.

Well, my excitement faded as the days passed and I had no E-mails from this individual. I contemplated sending them an E-mail but thought better of it. If they want to come, they’ll contact me, right?

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