Conference Time

I will once again be attending the National Council of Teachers of English conference.  I am very excited, but I am also apprehensive.  Most of the time, I find phenomenal speakers and writers who share wonderful bits of information.  However, sometimes I find myself wasting time.  I hate wasting time.  But, maybe it will all be great.

At the very least, it’s an excuse to go to Orlando in November.  Can’t beat that.


Read a Book

I’ve been swamped lately.  Because of that, I’ve fallen into the traps that I’ve railed against in the past.  One of those traps is that I haven’t set aside time to read.  I run from one activity to another and spend my time trying to get caught up.  What bugs me is that I continually tell my students that they can always find time to read, but I was not following my own advice.

This weekend, however, I finally got to sit down and read a book.  I forgot how relaxing it is.  I feel really great and invigorated.  It’s pretty great that a book can do that.  Really fires up the imagination.  In a way, it’s like dreaming.

SO, this quick post is my comment to you.  Go read!

Educational Finance Proposal

I have an idea.  My own school district is doing fine financially, but as I look around the country, I am both saddened and dismayed.  So, I have an idea.

Imagine, if you will, that Mr. Teacher has been viewed by many in the community as a great teacher.  There might be data to support this, or maybe it is just a feeling, but quite often Mr. Teacher is requested by many parents and students because of his perceived excellence in educating.  Rather than a state given bonus, a teacher can choose to enroll into a program.  In this program, parents can literally buy a seat in Mr. Teacher’s room for their child.  However, for every seat that wealthy parent purchases, another seat is provided for a student who is identified as “at risk” for any number of reasons.  In this way, Mr. Teacher is using his mighty skills to provide a superior education for both ends of the spectrum.  If there is not enough interest to fill the desks with students who have “bought” their way in, then other students can be randomly assigned.

The money spent in this fashion could be split between the teacher and the district.  Mr. Teacher is winning by getting a bonus, and the district is winning by scoring financial support for the district.

If Mr. Teacher is not as good as he thinks he is, no one will buy a seat and he will get the usual mix of students.  No bonus for either he or the school.

I haven’t really thought this through, but it seems like it could work.  Of course, maybe those people buying seats wouldn’t want the other end of students placed with their own children, but if the teacher is good enough, this should be worth it.  With any luck, other teachers would seek Mr. Teacher out to learn how he teaches so well so that they, too, can earn a bonus and be sought out by prospective parents and teachers.

Maybe it wouldn’t work, but it seems to be a better solution than any others I have heard.  What do you think?


I recently went through training to become a mentor to new teachers.  It seems like a really good program.  They certainly are asking for a serious commitment from me, but the statistics that they cited are scary.  In the first five years, nearly 50% of new teachers leave the profession.  They had other first year and second year, etc… stats, but I can’t remember them offhand.  The important statistic that they showed, though, was that their mentoring program had a 97% retention rate.  That is to say that new teachers that had a mentor through those first few years didn’t quit.

It really is a simple concept.  Don’t close the door.  Offer help.  Work together.  Collaborate.  They do have some more specific guidelines, of course, but that’s really what it comes down to.

There’s so much talk about good, bad, and ugly teachers, but this seems to be a really effective and smart way to help our profession out.  Help out the new teachers.  Set them on a good path.  Keep them in the profession, unless they need to leave.

You should do it, too.

Digital vs Face-to-Face Conversations

We’re having parent/teacher conferences this week.  We weren’t sure what to expect for tonight.  Would there be many parents?  With all of the modern technology providing online grades, emails with teachers, websites with lesson plans, etc…would parents even need to come and visit with teachers?

Apparently, the answer is yes.  Many of the conversations were obvious based on the grades posted online, but parents still prefer to meet face to face.  So far, anyway.  Will this change?  I don’t know.  There is something to be said for meeting this person who will be spending so much time with your child.  Especially when said child comes home and talks about that teacher.  It’s good to meet the person and get your own feeling about them.

That’s how I feel as a parent.  As a teacher, I have to admit, I find that most of the conferences are not the best use of my time.  I only meet with a small percentage of the parents that I need to meet with.  So, is it worth it?  I’m not sure.

Either way, it doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon.

Learn From Anything

Recently, a teacher I work with was ill and missed a couple days of school.  She thought she was at a good enough spot that she could assign a writing assignment for the classes to work on under the tutelage of the substitute teacher.  When you are gone, you really don’t have a lot of choices.  Either plug in a movie or a pointless worksheet, or hope for the best.

When she returned, the essays were anything but good.  They did not show any of the concepts she had tried to instill in them prior to being ill.  She was frustrated and wanted to simply toss the pile in the trash and start over.  She figured that it was two days wasted, so she was ready to roll up her sleeves and start again.

I offered a different perspective.

Any good writing takes multiple drafts.  What this teacher had was an opportunity to take a first draft, identify the errors, and then show how to improve.  Rather than trying to talk general theory, she had applicable writings that students could actually use to improve their writing.  Rather than seeing this is a waste of time, she could view it as a good use of time and a way to further student understanding.

It’s a simple concept, but her frustration with the students was blinding her.  If she hadn’t had opportunity to sound off with someone who wasn’t there to gripe and complain, but was instead trying to help her, it could have turned into a bad day for both her and her students.  In truth, she would have ended up wasting more time by starting over.  She would have frustrated and alienated her students.

My conclusion here is this:  The way to make teachers better is to encourage better collaboration.  Not “coblaboration” as one teacher told me.  Actually work together.  Offer and take advice.  Try to make things better.  Don’t just shut the door and do your own thing.

Copyright Questions

A few teachers I know were arguing, rather heatedly, with a student teacher about the copyright laws regarding what teachers can and cannot use in the classroom in the realm of music and movies.  The teachers were of the opinion that teachers can use any movie for educational purpose.  The student teacher was of the opinion that teachers could only get away with using short clips if they wanted to avoid copyright infringement.

This conversation comes up a lot.  I’m often on the fence, because whenever I have done my own personal research, I’ve been unable to come to a solid conclusion.  To me, it doesn’t seem clear and for every expert I find on one side of the issue, I’ll find another expert on the other side.  My only comparison that makes sense to me is this:  I would never feel that I could photocopy a novel and pass it out to students and assume this was legal.  Why would showing a movie be legal?

Unfortunately, when it comes to student projects, I have no idea what is right.  Can I assign students to make a mashup, a’la Glee, without running into copyright infringement?  Should I even be worrying about this?  I don’t know.  All I know is that I have yet to meet a teacher who knows the answer to this and that either means it is a hole in our education, or the law is not clear.  It’s only a problem if teachers are being prosecuted for it.

Unless you think teachers should be paying artists for using their work in the classroom?

More Than a Feeling

I have much to say on this topic, but today I’ll give a summary.  Often, I find that teachers are quite sure that the lesson they are teaching has been quite successful in the past, so they are certain it will continue to work in the future.  I question them about how they found it successful and their answers usually become nebulous.  “I get such a great response from this.”  “They really learn the material.” “I enjoy teaching this.”

That’s all great, but how do they know it’s actually doing anything well?  Just because something feels right doesn’t mean that it is right.  If you really want to know that you are doing something right, you need to have data.  Yes, scientific data.  Something that is more reliable and verifiable than your gut.  I know, I know.  Only math people like math.  Well, unfortunately for you, you can’t really live in a bubble of your expertise and hope that you will do well.

In short, you must be able to prove that your students have shown improvement.  That does involve some sort of standardized, objective test.  Sorry.  I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but how else can you really know if your teaching methods are actually effective?  You’ve got to have more than a feeling.

Why “units” are bad

A teacher asked me earlier this year if I had a copy of a lesson I gave the year before.  I’m always happy to share any of my resources with other people.  The problem was that she couldn’t remember exactly what the lesson was.  She remembered that I had taught it during a certain unit, so she wondered if she could just look through my file on that unit.

I informed her that I don’t keep such things.  I don’t have a Romeo and Juliet file or a Short Story Unit file.  To me, these are the things that get teachers into ruts.  Once you start pulling out “The File” you stop thinking about what you should be teaching, or how things have changed.  Instead, you cling to that manilla folder and all of its contents and try to teach it the same way that you always have.  This, to me, is the classic sign of a teacher going bad…or already there.

Don’t get me wrong.  I do keep lessons that I have developed.  But each is a distinct item that I use for specific purposes.  If, while teaching Romeo and Juliet, I feel the need to discuss character foils, I pull out my lesson and we go with it.  But, since it isn’t part of an official “unit” I might not use that lesson at all.  It depends upon what the students need.

Is this method a lot more work?  You bet it is.  I’m constantly creating new notes, handouts, worksheets, etc… instead of recycling the ones I made last year.  But, it keeps me fresh, and keeps me focused on teaching what is important.  Not doing what’s been done before.

What are we grading?

I visited with a frustrated teacher today.  Unfortunately for both us, I became frustrated with her rather than the student who frustrated her.  Her story was this:  She assigned a novel to read.  Same novel for all of the students.  One student started to read it, decided he didn’t like it, and informed the teacher he wasn’t going to finish it.  She was understandably upset.  She has all sorts of lessons and quizzes and essays that are all related to the assigned novel.  This student won’t be able to complete any of them and will be failing.

My reply was that reading the novel is not a state benchmark nor is it a requirement of our school.  Is it right to fail a student with an assignment that is not required?  What can the student learn from reading the novel that can’t be learned from reading a short story?  The student demonstrated that he could read, because he read the first two chapters of the assigned novel before giving up on it.

Is it worth failing a student because of an attitude problem?

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