Like a cat held tightly–a cat with claws–I generally chafe at being boxed in, metaphorically. I’m not easily labeled.  I prefer organic flow, flux.

Litha Pull


Except when it comes to tasks.

I’m one of those people you read about who can’t clean the sink because then the whole kitchen needs cleaning, and what’s the point of doing that if you can’t change the sheets and mop up the basement, so the sink doesn’t get done.  I can’t grade just a couple of papers and then move on to something else; I’d best get them all done or nothing.  This is probably why I can’t do daily cooking chores, either; it’s either got to be a full Thanksgiving spread or I order out for ‘za.

I compartmentalize, and I can’t move from one compartment to the next until the first one’s empty and put on a shelf.

It’s not efficient, it’s not pleasant, and it drives my husband crazy, but there you have it.  I’m forty-five years old; change comes hard.

This probably explains why, when I’ve spent the last two months in total limbo over whether or not I’ll have a place to live by my new job, I can’t quite open the “plan for new school year” box until I have the “now completely settled in my new house” empty (save for a scrap or two, perhaps) and put away. As we hope to close on Wednesday (two days from now, but that’s not even settled), and as we’re planning on the actual moving process (I have very little to offer, what with the tendinitis and fibromyalgia and all), so we’re needing to line up help.

My husband, wisely, has said, “Well, it might take a while…we could do it [names possibilities weeks down the road] since we don’t even have our current home on the market, yet.”  Perfectly reasonable.

Unless you’re ME.

“AAACCCKKKKK!  No!  I need to start getting together with my new English colleagues and go over curriculum!  I need to plan my new courses, and get my room ready!  AAAACCKKKK!!!”  (That would be my reply.)

“Um–,” patient Husband responds, with puzzled look, “Can’t that overlap a bit?  I mean, you can still get together with your colleagues even if you’re not moved in, right?”

WHAT?!?  That would mean HAVING TWO BOXES OPEN AT THE SAME TIME! That’s CRAZY TALK! Nonsense!  I have to be moved in, with pictures on the walls and the right rugs on the floor, and everything put away, before I could possibly meet and discuss CURRICULUM and OUTCOMES! What, is he speaking GREEK?!?

Yeah. So that’s where I am right now.

And speaking of open boxes…my house is full of a bazillion of them as we slowly sort and pack. And people wonder why I’m a raving lunatic right now…

I Gotcher Irony Right Here…

It’s long been an idiosyncracy of my nature that while I love art (and started college as an art major, even) and literature, I just can’t get into graphic novels or comic books, no matter how hard I try.  And I have tried. (You’ve met my husband and most of my friends, perhaps?  Geek squared. Love ’em.) I can’t even get into Neil Gaiman graphic novels, which is saying something as I’m a huge fan of his fiction, and I do find the artwork brilliant. Something in my brain just…doesn’t…compute.

The same sort of thing happens with Musical Theatre.  I love plays.  I love music.  I dislike them together.

I recently compared myself to the King of Swamp Castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in that every time Herbert starts wanting to sing the drama around me, I turn it off.  Just the way I am.

And, of course, just as most of my friends love comics, I, too, am surrounded by people who love musicals.  I mean, my husband and half my friends direct and/or act in them.  And I love these people.

Here’s the funny part (you knew it was coming).  I’m now the new artistic director of the school musical at my new job.

I’ll pause a minute to give everyone who knows me a few moments to giggle, snort, and thank the gods for the gift of irony.

Done yet?  No. Okay, I’ll wait.

Okay. Yeah. So, I like a challenge.  And, as I also recently said, trying to bolster myself, at least it’s not Prom Advisor (an activity for which I have so much venom and nausea that were I Queen of the Universe, I’d eliminate entirely from schools everywhere). So, it’s not all bad. And I’m not alone–the school’s new Music teacher will be my partner in crime, and our correspondence thus far has been a lot of fun, and I look forward to working with her.

The problems remain, however.  I, a person whose only musical theatre “likes” are Jesus Christ Superstar (how can you NOT like that, and I’m not even religious), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Tim Curry in a merry widow trumps all musical qualms), Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “Once More With Feeling,” and Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along  Blog (these last two are Joss Whedon, and if he were holding *prom* I’d love it, no matter what) has to find something workable for high school students–students I’ve yet to meet in a school I’ve yet to work in–and put on a production before Thanksgiving.

Frank n Furter

Frank n Furter

I’m suddenly finding myself in my husband’s bailiwick, saying things like “perusal scripts” and “performance rights” and “blocking.” I never wanted to be in my husband’s bailiwick, and it feels very strange.  HE SHOULD BE DOING THIS, is what I’m thinking.  HE’S THE DIRECTOR, not I.  I teach plays and occasionally act in Shakespeare. I don’t know from choreography and cheating out and periaktoi*.

On the other hand, I like learning new things, and like I often do, I’ve jumped into this with both feet. I’m scouring online for titles and terms; I’ve bookmarked “how to produce a musical” websites.  I’ve posted to facebook and watched the hilarity ensue. And, of course, there’s the fact that on long drives, my husband and I like to sing select musicals, a capella, together. (I cannot sing. I can read music, and I did have eleven years of piano lessons and short stints of clarinet and guitar lessons.)

But all of that prep work is a cakewalk to actually facing a group of kids, night after night, to put on an actual show. I’m terrified. And excited.  And laughing my butt off about the whole thing.



* I call these things pterodactyls; far easier.  🙂

Assessment Balancing Act

I mentioned the other day that one of the books I’ve been reading is Jane E. Pollock’s Improving Student Learning One Teacher at a Time. This comes at the behest of my new principal at my new school, and even as I may disagree with a couple of the premises (pending further research), I found myself devouring this book and seeing how it could, indeed, completely change how I view and accomplish assessment and feedback, two of my least strong areas of my teaching. This is revolutionary, if it can be implemented.

The thesis of the book is that by addressing the Big Four (curriculum, instruction, assessment, and feedback) differently from the way it’s done in most schools, teachers can have an immense impact on student learning. Instead of improving the teacher, the idea is to make master learners.  Sounds great, and I accept that, even if I don’t go so far as to believe that a teacher is the number one variable all the time or that this approach will eliminate, as Pollock writes, the “hope” that something will work and replace it with “certainty.”  I believe there are precious few absolutes in education, and I find stating such a thing rather…arrogant. That said, as I’m thinking through her points, I find I’m more than willing to implement the changes, even if I do so with hope rather than guarantee the aforementioned certainty.

I’ll skip over the first two of the Big Four–discussions for another time–except to say that she was also co-author with and colleague of Robert Marzano, and I’ve found his ideas on instruction extremely sound and helpful in the past. Also, I’ll simply mention that Pollock uses the word “robust” entirely too often, to the point where I wanted to make a drinking game of it (think “Picard maneuver”). The major eye-opener of this book, for me, was Pollock’s ideas on assessment, and, as a result, feedback.

Instead of cursorily aligning one’s instruction and activities to the standards and then grading each assessment opportunity on various expectations that may or may not have a nodding acquaintance with standards, Pollock proposes we grade to the standards directly. “Score the benchmarks,” she states, and it’s something that seems so obvious, yet I don’t know anyone who does this, and I’ve certainly not. If the benchmark is to distinguish between “who” and “whom,” for example, that’s what should be in the gradebook. Teachers should keep track of the students’ progress toward the benchmarks rather than isolated grades on activities that may or may not even address them specifically.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be news to elementary teachers; it certainly is to a high school English teacher. I imagine sitting down at conferences with this page rather than my old gradebook, and being able to address specifically where the student needs to apply more work and what the student has already accomplished.  Rather revolutionary for someone who, like many, starts planning with the topics, which leads to activities, which, eventually, leads to grades on the activities. Instead, each unit could begin with the benchmarks, sublist the activities to address them and test them, and grade to these.

Of course, one would have to agree with the standards to begin with, which may be a problem.  And, as Pollock addresses, each district would have to take a serious look at standards and add their own to the bare bones list many get from the State in order to have a fully-rounded curriculum–something I will be doing with my new colleagues this summer at my new school, and I’m looking forward to it (yes, I mean that seriously…I like this sort of thing). Minnesota has adopted the Common Core standards, which, on first blush, I like somewhat more than the 2003 set (which was our last). We have some more time to implement the new ones, but there’s no time like the present to get going!

I already believe in grading with rubrics, and Pollock explains there’s still room for grading effort and study skills alongside the benchmarks, so I believe I’m going to try this.  Additionally, she spends explaining how students’ self-assessment is also a part of this; taking responsibility for their own learning.  I have my doubts regarding the reported eagerness teenagers have in tracking their own learning in this regard, but I’m trying to keep an open mind.

As grading is my philosophical and pragmatic low point (I do not believe in entering grades for the sake of entering grades, which is what modern parent portals and obsession with little letters has become; if I hear one more student talk about grades more than what one learned in a course, I’ll scream), it’s possible this may solve several of my problems at once.  At the same time, it will create other difficulties, I predict: paperwork, for one. The “teacher voices” included in each chapter of Pollock’s book address this latter, too; it seems to be a work in progress, as is anything else in teaching.  Finding an efficient, useful, meaningful way to implement learning without letting it take over one’s entire life is always a teacher’s balancing act.

In-Service Day Wrap Up: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

I gave my Web 2.0 presentation today at the extended faculty meeting–I took nearly an hour and I still wasn’t finished.  Sheesh.  Good thing I cut it back, eh?

I’m not sure if I was very helpful to people, but I hope so.  I began by asking the assembled faculty if any of them knew what “web 2.0” was; not a single hand went up.  That was actually nearly reassuring; it meant that I wouldn’t be talking down to them.  I hate it when that happens, from either side of the communication.

A few more joined the faculty ning I set up over Christmas break–that’s a good sign.  Quite a few who had joined right away and then forgot also showed up today—adding some information, discussing other things.  A good start.  And, a group of us had a meeting today about doing interdisciplinary lessons and performance preparation for the concert that’s on Cinco de Mayo–we came up with some neat ideas–and we immediately said we need to add a group for that purpose on the faculty ning.  Yay!

Drop by drop.

Also had a discussion about YouTube (and subsequently Nibipedia and Wordia) being blocked.  It sounds as if most of the faculty (if not administration) supports unblocking it and finding other means of monitoring students than wholesale locked gates.

We’ll see where that goes, as well.  Drop by drop!

In other news, grades are due this week (I have hundreds of papers I’ve been putting off) and Round One of Mock Trial competition (I have two teams, and both play the same day) on Wednesday.  Preparing for a sub for the whole day plus the stress of the trials (I lose years of my life each time) added to the grading, AND a new semester starting tomorrow, and I’ve about had it.

Might explain the migraine I’ve been nursing all day, one that promises to gather strength if I keep heaping stress on like Mrs. Tam O’Shanter nursing her wrath to keep it warm…(one of my all-time favorite lines of poetry, there–thanks Robbie Burns!)

Oh…the insulting part of the day?  The insurance meeting.  We have a pay freeze on, statewide (Governor Pawlenty), but our already outrageous health insurance is going up at least 20%.  I have no idea where I’ll find that kind of money–we already aren’t making it, and my husband doesn’t even *have* insurance.

I’m trying not to think about it right now.  Not this week.  I can’t physically afford the worry.  Once grades are in, once Mock Trial is over, then I’ll spend the time to deal with having two degrees, several years experience, working a gazillion hours a week, but not being able to support myself doing so.

I’m *not* breaking Godwin’s Law, but…

…something happened today that is making think about it.

My tenth graders just finished reading Elie Wiesel’s Night, and they’re now working on culminating projects.   One of the groups is doing a “Who was Hitler, really” kind of thing, researching his life and trying to figure out how someone like him happened.

We were all in the lab today, and one of the girls in the group–obviously reading some informative site–asked me, “Ms O, what’s ‘mein kampf”?”

As I always remind my students, it’s not my job to provide answers but to help guide them to arriving at their own answers–which is much harder, usually, than the former.  For both of us.  So, I said, “I think you should research that.  Go see what you can find, and we’ll talk in a few minutes.”

About twenty seconds later–I hadn’t even rounded to the other side of the lab, yet–the same girl, after doing a search, said, “Ms O?  The filter blocked it.  Says it’s ‘hate speech’.”

Well, of *course* it’s hate speech…Hitler freaking wrote it! For the love of all that’s educational!


Two years ago, I had a senior girl unable to do most of her research for a paper at school because she was researching breast cancer research.  God forbid a student accidentally stumble on a picture or description of a human body part, even in the interests of healthy research.  This same student had family members personally touched by this terrible disease, and really wanted to write this paper and learn more about it herself…so, she did so from home.

Because the filter wouldn’t let her type in “breast” and get any results.

A year or so before that, I had a student writing about the ravages of meth–something that definitely touches many here in the rural backwater.  Meth is quite a prominent, and deadly, drug in these parts.

What happened?  He couldn’t look up figures from NIDA–the National Institute on Drug Abuse–because–yep, you guessed it–it was blocked.  He couldn’t look at any site that included “drug”, just as my other student couldn’t look at any site including the word “breast.”  (No looking up chicken recipes!)

It’s enough to make any educator, anyone who cares about quality education, anyone who’s not tied into a veritable knot about “safety of children!!!!!!!” with a dozen exclamation points.

Our children will, most certainly, NOT be safe if we don’t teach them responsible internet use, don’t allow them to use the word “breast” or look up drug use statistics, or learn about a crazy, paranoid, dangerously-charismatic wingnut mass murderer.  We’ll send them off without any tools, without the ability to *educate themselves*.

All in the misguided ruse of “protecting” them.

So, today, when my student said she wasn’t allowed to look up Hitler’s book in a public school in supposedly the world’s “most free” country, even with a teacher’s blessing, I very nearly had a conniption.  (My students know how I feel about filters, and I had twenty-five pairs of eyes on me immediately–I’m proud to say that I did keep my cool, although I explained why I was angered by the filter.)

I said, “Well, the term means ‘my struggle,’ but I wanted you to find that out on your own, and it’s the title of a book Hitler wrote.”

And, so, I’m not going to break Godwin’s Law. I’m not going to compare a totalitarian, Big Brother-esque mandatory internet filter to…

…um, nope.  I think you can connect the dots just fine.

Edit:  1/16/09, to add italics to book title

So, it’s a metaphor, kinda.

Imagine this:

You’re in a darkened, metal box.  Someone–someone evil, mind you–has set up a laser-and-mirrors gig so there are constantly-moving red lights around you in the dark, but you can’t quite find their source or track them easily.

It’s far too warm in the box.  And you don’t have room to lie down; you can lean against the walls, but they’re rough and spiky.

Your stomach is unsettled and you know you’re mere nanseconds away from losing your sandwich-and-yogurt lunch (one your awesome husband lovingly made and packed for you this morning).

While you’re enjoying all of these sensations, someone (again, someone evil) has loosened several sharp-toothed weasels to leap and crawl around (they have claws, as well) inside the metal box, and outside, several evil someones are pounding on the metal walls, with hammers, in various asynchronous, unrelenting rhythms.

In short, this is a day teaching while having a migraine after not being able to sleep the night before.

Just so you know.  🙂

New Year’s Resolutions–for *Teaching*

Yeah, the health-related and personal ones will go elsewhere.  🙂

Educators have a natural “refreshment” break before each new school year, or term, to revisit goals and make adjustments.  New Year isn’t exactly the natural point for such endeavors, but since I haven’t been doing so well with the objectives I set for myself back in August–plus I have some new ones–I may as well start fresh here.

Ah, the sweet smell of optimistic good intentions!

So, first of all, the “I’ve-had-these-on-my-list-and-I-still-need-to-do-better” resolutions:

Grading. I’m still absolutely overwhelmed by the amount of grading and the hours and hours it takes.  I need to not only vow to decrease the time between getting the papers and handing them back with feedback, but find efficient means of doing so.  Perhaps I need to try some different methods–online commenting, peer review, etc.–because I something needs to change.  In 2009, I will try to grade more quickly and also find ways to do it *better*.

Family Contact.  My Principal makes this a priority, and we’re reminded to make contact with parents more often–and I have not done this as well as I could be.  I need to make more contact for the good things, the “wow” moments, the “You won’t believe the cool thing your kid did today!” moments.  I think part of it for me is that I’m far more comfortable with e-mail than telephone; I have a near pathological aversion for telephones and I would be quite happy not even having one, actually, especially in my classroom (I loathe the interruptions).  I know for sure that I would make more contact via e-mail than with phone, so my resolution here is twofold: to face up to my aversion to phones much more often and to make more e-mail contact, as well.

Fewer Stranded Lessons.  There isn’t enough time each day to get through all the lesson, practice, application I want, and there certainly isn’t enough time each school year to do justice to all the strands expected on the state standards.  I know I’m guilty of introducing a concept–usually something grammatical, the next step in making writing more fluent, etc.–and, because of lack of time, realizing days later that the followup for the lesson got lost in the shuffle.  When I come back to it then, it’s nearly like starting over.  I need to find ways of making sure this happens less often–I think I’m doing better this year already, but I haven’t reached my goal just yet.

And, a few new ones that I want to incorporate into my teaching:

Web2.0 Advancement. Ah, yes…I can hear the echo of this one reverberating off thousands of teachers’ walls across the country as we speak.  The big catch-phrase of 2008-2009 (at least where I’m from–we may be a bit behind the trends, being where we are, which isn’t always a bad thing as at least the trends have to take substantial hold before we get to them).  And yes, I am wholeheartedly signing on.  Not because I think the tools are ends in and of themselves, but because I think they’re great tools.  If the tools open up the world, if the tools help kids connect–both with text and with others, if the tools allow different perspectives, if the tools bring delight and efficiency to learning, then I want to use them.  I want to spice up old plans, I want to shift and expand and view lessons through different lenses.  Kids up out of their desks more often.  I want to see the love of discovery–something I’ve decried the lack of for years–and if these tools can help with that, I want ’em.

“It’s a dangerous thing, Frodo, stepping outside your windows…”

Here’s the deal.  Aside from grading stacks and stacks of papers, planning a few lit units, organizing my house that has, for the last two years, slid further and further into “crazy psycho collector read-all-about-it-in-the-Lifestyle-section” land, and catching up on leisure reading, I’m supposed to be putting together a presentation for my colleagues about all the neato things I learned at the TIES conference at the beginning of the month. (Reference this blog and this one for context.)

That wouldn’t be a problem–I like putting together presentations–except for two things:

1)  I hate, loathe, detest, and am flattened by having to present to colleagues.  I can only teach teenagers.  That’s it.  My repertoire is quite…small.  I can do 8th grade, and I can do seniors, and I can do everything in between, but beyond that?  I either come across like a total imbecile or, in trying to avoid that, I assume far too much and end up speaking babble in Greek.


2)  In deciding what to include, I’ve been spending hours reading edtech blogs, following links, adding to my bookmarks, and exclaiming, “Oh, hey, another way to use Twitter!” and “Wow, that’s so freaking cool!” a lot.

Neither of these points are very helpful, you might notice.

Perhaps as an act of exorcism, I’ll lay out some of the cool things I’ve been finding for #2.  (If any of you have ideas on fixing #1, please comment or e-mail!)

  • Wordia.  I’m having visions of some very fun and creative vocabulary lessons for kids.
  • Search Cube.  Cool for visual learners, I suspect.  You can view an example here.
  • Twitter Venn tools.  Very cool.  Visually interesting and fun.  (Not to mention an awesome woman whose blog I need to watch closely so it’s already added to my RSS feed!)
  • Speaking of new bloggers I’m following, here’s a great idea for Movie Trailers for Books with a very cool resource for keeping track of visual sources.  Woot!

Where did most of these come from?  Tweets on Twitter posted by other educators or edtechs.

So…back to that presentation.  Maybe after following links to just a couple of more sites…and checking my tweets another time…oh, and yeah, that new Wiki I joined for educators, that might have something new…and…and…and…