Educational Philosophy


Seriously, I get tired of writing about the teachers’ lounge. If it weren’t for the fact that I do like socializing with my colleagues during the one real time I get to see any of them (besides my lunch duty, which I share with another new teacher), I think I would avoid it. It seems like when I pay attention to what’s actually in there (which I do somewhat out of necessity, since my lunch period starts 15 minutes before the rest of the group), I inevitably find something that makes me go through what seems like the stages of grief: anger that someone in my hallowed profession would applaud something so stupid, depression that someone would actually disseminate bad information when our job is to promote knowledge and understanding, and finally acceptance (or maybe resignation) that I can’t change everything.

But then the idealist in me says, What do you mean, you can’t change everything? How will you know if you can’t do something about this if you don’t make an effort?

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This Youtube video was posted by a friend on facebook, and it got me thinking…

About what? you might ask. Well, I’m glad you did!

One of the most remarkable things that this experiment suggests is that fun can be a viable method of behavior modification. If you want people to start using stairs (which is beneficial to them in terms of health, but don’t ask people to listen to reason on something like that), then find a fun way to entice people into using them: make the stairs a friggin’ piano.

I see a very logical extension of this “fun theory” into the classroom – if you want students to modify their behavior so that learning can occur, make the classroom fun. Throw out the stuffiness and stifling atmosphere and encourage one that pushes students to get up, to take risks, to let comfort go and reach for the unknown.

I don’t know an easy way to do this – and certainly I would be open to suggestions – but I think it can be achieved. It is, if nothing else, food for thought.

We’re now eight weeks out, with the quarter approaching imminently (it ends on this coming Friday). I’m glad that the quarter’s almost done, although I feel like I have so much to get taken care of in the meantime.

Looking back on just this week, it feels like so much has happened, so much that I want to talk about (and some of which I already have). So here it goes, I suppose (sorry about the unintentional rhyme):

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I always seem to find myself in weird places when it comes to generations: I obviously fit into the Generation Y timeframe (mid-’80s) but have some of an appreciation for both the old and the new. I have a soft spot for tradition but embrace progress and change – it’s a somewhat bizarre mix at times.

Since becoming a teacher, I have found certain things causing me to engage my place on the generational fence, confronted on one hand by some of my older colleagues (although there are a handful who are roughly my age) and on the other by my students, who have their own ways of making me feel old. My own stance provides me an interesting position, though, to engage the thoughts of both the older Generation X and the newer Generation Z.*

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Despite my fears about this week, things have gone mostly right for me. Some of the reason for this is simply that I went a little bit light on the things I taught, giving students time to work on major projects in class. For at least one day thus far, I was barely in my classroom; my three regular courses were in the computer lab working on narrative essays, persuasive speeches, and cultural research projects. Really, there has been very little material that I’ve been able to do this week, probably mostly covering the final chapters of Grapes of Wrath in my novels elective (which I’m struggling to get finished because I want to move on – I had planned on starting The Great Gatsby this week but hadn’t been moving quickly enough) and providing some material on the nonverbal elements of speaking in preparation for persuasive speeches.

That doesn’t mean that everything’s come easily, though. Today in particular was one filled with a little more drama than I would like to deal with.

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One of my students writing a college application essay about wanting to be a teacher (yes, I have one) used this quote:

Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.

— John Cotton Dana

It’s so great that to see my motto so widely accepted.

Note: This piece contains details of sexual anatomy and gender-related issues.

My most recent excavation into the seldom-visited realm of “reading for enjoyment” (“seldom” because I generally have to keep up with other reading professionally or other work) was Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex. I had originally run into this title in an issue of English Journal (see here for more discussion of the EJ issue in question), and I was curious despite some initial skepticism after seeing that Eugenides’ last published novel was The Virgin Suicides. (In truth, I shouldn’t have judged his work based on the title of one book, just like it would be unfair to judge Salman Rushdie on The Satanic Verses.) When I found a hardcover edition on sale for approximately $7-8 at my local chain bookstore, I decided to jump in.

It was a good move.

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Since I last wrote here, I have encountered my first instance of outright plagiarism as a full-time teacher, one so flagrant that it was almost immediately identifiable as something other than the writing of a high school junior and which I found almost immediately with a Google search as an Apache creation myth (the assignment was for an original creation myth). At first, I was furious about it, but now I’m just disappointed and have cooled down maybe enough that I can handle the student the way he/she deserves to be handled: firm but with mercy.

I say “with mercy” because I’m providing a second opportunity for the student. If he/she will turn in an original myth by tomorrow, I’ll accept it for a significantly reduced grade (but higher than what he/she would otherwise get: a zero), and if not, I’ll give a zero and inform the principal of the violation. I was perfectly clear on my syllabus that plagiarism is not something I take lightly, and I intend to make my example here for future violations. I think I’m being more than fair.

On a totally different note, I have felt like planning has come together very loosely, and I’m still working out details for instruction this week despite having the weekly assignments up for students. (I might have set a bad precedent by doing this, although it helps keep me accountable.)

But one thing that I will change – in a very positive way – is due to something I just found. In searching for information on the 1992 movie version of Of Mice and Men (starring Gary Sinise as George Milton and John Malkovich as Lennie Smalls), I found an online streaming version of the full movie on imdb (streaming provided by that great video site, hulu) that I can use today for my students. I had wanted to show parts of this but wasn’t going to be able to get it in time; it’s available on netflix, which we use pretty much exclusively now for movies at home, but it wouldn’t have arrived quickly enough, and it isn’t available for instant watching.

And I took a phrase that has been a part of my teacher’s toolbox for quite a while – Don’t panic! from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – and printed out an image of it with Marvin, laminated it, and put it in my classroom for easy reference (and another decoration for the room).

Another week, a mixed bag – but onward I press in this journey of teaching. As long as I enjoy it, I think it’ll be just fine.

Despite the fact that we’re only in the second week of school, there has already been a fair amount of drama that has erupted at the small rural school I teach at, some including students of mine. A few days ago, the story everyone was talking about was about how two of my students (coincidentally, both in my 1st hour class) had gotten in a “fight” – one had hit the other in the eye, for reasons that I won’t disclose (although I will note that I could see both sides in the argument that was the catalyst for the altercation).

One of these students has had problems with attendance in the past, and she rather nonchalantly told another teacher that she found out she was pregnant. (I say nonchalant, but here’s how the teacher described the conversation: “How are you doing today?” “I’m pregnant.” With an awkward silence where the teacher didn’t quite know how to respond, presumably because you don’t want to say, ‘Oh, congratulations!’ because it might be seen as condoning an unplanned, out-of-wedlock pregnancy or because the student might not be favorable to this event. And I won’t even touch the idea of pooh-poohing it in front of the student, which has its own set of problems.)

The teacher was telling us this in the teachers’ lounge, which was probably appropriate enough since several of us have her in our classes and would benefit from knowing of her pregnancy in order to accommodate her special circumstance and to help her get through this year, which is her senior year. Well, at least, that’s what I thought when I heard this news.

Apparently not everyone in the teachers’ lounge during our lunch period felt so. One particular teacher commented, “Well, she should just quit now, because it’s going to be too hard for her.” (This teacher also happens to occupy the classroom next to mine.)

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I’m a big believer in switching things up, getting away from the traditional assignments every once in a while to give students a different perspective or to find a different way for students to demonstrate what they learn or discover on their own.

One of the most traditional assignments I can think of is the book report. I had to do these in high school – some presented orally for the teacher (I don’t think I ever gave one in front of a whole class, although I might be mistaken on that), some written before class, and some written during class – and I hated them. In fact, I frequently managed to fool my teachers into thinking I had actually read the book, once with Fahrenheit 451 and once with The Scarlet Letter, because the reports focused more on plot summary than on the overall themes or issues in the books. (I ended up reading and enjoying both of them, of course, but that’s beside the point.) I am acutely aware that book reports are not only tedious (generally for both student and teacher) but also largely ineffective in accurately assessing students’ independent reading.

In my very first language arts methods course, we looked at some alternatives, 50 of them to be exact, set out by one of the coauthors of our text, Diana Mitchell (the text is Exploring and Teaching the English Language Arts, coauthored with Stephen Tchudi). They are unique and require a great deal more thought than simply spewing out plot summary or perhaps personal reactions to the events. A few examples:

Critique from the point of view of a specific organization. Select an organization that might have a lot to say about the actions or portrayals of characters in the novel you read, and write a critique of the book from its point of view. For example the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals might have a lot to say about Lennie’s treatment of animals in Of Mice and Men, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on the portrayal of Crooks, and the National Organization of Women on the portrayal of Curley’s wife and the fact that she was never given a name.

Chat room conversations. Imagine that your character has found other people to talk with while in a chat room he or she found while surfing the Internet. Describe the chat room your character was in and why your character would be drawn to the kind of group that operates the chat room. Then construct the conversation your character had with others while in the chat room.

Music. After reading a novel, figure out how you would divide the book into sections. Then select a piece of music that you think captures the feel or tone of each section. Record the pieces and if possible do voice-overs explaining what is happening in the novel during the piece of music and why you felt this piece of music fit the section of the novel.

Those are just three of 50, and I could see modifications of each that would work equally well, in my opinion. I also think – and I may do this in my own planning for independent reading projects in two of my courses – that it would be interesting to align some options for students with Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory. Clearly, “Music” would align with musical intelligence, and I could envision some additional assignments (for interpersonal intelligence, having two students read related books independently and record a dialogue of a conversation they have about the major issues in the book they each had read).

So here’s a question for any teachers, English or otherwise: what overly traditional assignments have you decided (or would you like) to discard, and what type of authentic assessments would you replace them with?

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