Oh my goodness, how is it ALREADY almost the END of MAY?!? I resolved to post at least once a month; that didn't seem like too much to ask. Set small goals. Be realistic. I tell my students that kind of advice every day, and yet here I am, at the end of May, with no post since the end of March!
Anyway, there are some big changes coming my way... I've accepted a position as an ITRT (an instructional technology resource teacher) with my division next year, so I'm going to be taking a break from the English classroom for a while. As you can imagine, my emotions are running the gamut (euphoria as I consider not having to grade every night and weekend, anxiety as I think about what my next post will require, devastation as I think of the students I'll miss working with next year--most especially in my Creative Writing and senior classes, just to name a few of the many emotions swirling around me right now).
It's hard to imagine what things will be like in the future. It was time for a change, and I'm ready to make it, but I can't help or avoid the waves of emotion that wash over me.
Our creative writing class dabbles in all sorts of endeavors. Among other things, we produce a monthly newsletter for the student body. It's a fun periodical that mixes interesting facts with occasional serious posts. And horoscopes, a popular read. And puzzles. Most students just do the puzzles. We're okay with that. We love creating them, and at least they're looking at them! Anyway, I've never put anything in the Gobbler Gab myself before, but here's what I wrote for our school newsletter this month:
What a privilege to be a teacher—to share smiles in the hallway, to make small talk in the moments before class begins, to learn and discuss, to share lives and experiences—to really come to know something real about someone (many unique, ever changing, special someones). What a privilege to spend every day doing something fulfilling, working with people who make life meaningful.
I got into teaching by accident, but I’ve stayed with intention. I came here by accident, too—a job opening in the state of Virginia where I found myself moving—and I was so lucky that it worked out to be here. To meet you.
And I’ve loved it here. It’s been a home. You’ve made me feel so welcome. The time flew by and suddenly I was three years in with a little girl at home. And you were always there, always saying hello, asking me about my day, about my baby, about my life. So much hard work, so much laughter. It’s been a great place to be. Thank you for being awesome and for making it fun.
And yet life comes along with surprises and opportunities to try new things. And so it is with sadness but also with excitement that I look ahead to the next chapter, to the great beyond.
And so to the freshmen, I leave Romeo and Juliet scenes with foam swords and “dead” bodies on the ground. To the juniors, I leave endless exploration of social issues and the questions about what to do to make the world better (along with SOL tests, which you’ll be leaving behind soon, as well!). To the AP seniors, I leave timed writings, endless discussions, and ingenious research projects.
And to the Creative Writing kids, I leave behind a piece of my heart. Along with awkward pauses, ill-timed comments, endless hours of filling blank pages, and crazy writing prompts. Not to mention the literary magazine.
And so for now, I'm out of ink. But in the time to come, I’ll still be in the hallways, in the doorways, in the public spaces, in the classrooms. I’ll be around, working for RCPS as an ITRT and trying out new ways to use technology to do projects and assignments.
Say hi when you see me. I’ll be so glad to see you. I promise that I remember, and that I miss you, too.
So there you have it. I'm embarking on a major transition. I'll still be blogging, and I'm sure many of those posts will still focus on English-related topics, especially as I work to document a lot of the ideas that I've been considering over the past few months but haven't had a chance to write. As I move more into the tech world, I may add to what is on here to focus on technology as well... We'll see what comes! I'll still be here, and I hope you'll journey along with me.
“In my mind I am eloquent; I can climb intricate scaffolds of words to reach the highest cathedral ceilings and paint my thoughts. But when I open my mouth, everything collapses.”
From the first moment that I heard about the novel Warm Bodies, I was intrigued. To me, the premise is fascinating. Isaac Marion takes two major writing tropes (zombie apocalypse AND star-crossed lovers) and marries them, producing a riveting new kind of fiction. I love novels that are both gritty and tender--ones that delve into complex characters and explore all sides of them (and we all know that I love works focusing on apocalyptic scenarios). While I've read/watched lots of zombie tales, I had never read one prior to this novel that explored the psyche of the zombie, or that presented the zombie as emotional and complex. I love the way that Marion explores issues of identity, memory, alienation, loneliness, and grief. The best part? "R," the main character, has a wry sense of humor that is deadly. The first line of the novel demonstrates his wit: "I am dead, but it's not so bad. I've learned to live with it."
R often addresses the audience directly when he talks, which creates an interesting effect. Right away, R reflects on names as he talks to the reader: "I'm sorry I can't properly introduce myself, but I don't have a name anymore. Hardly any of us do. We lose them like car keys, forget them like anniversaries..." R goes on to reflect on the significance of names as part of identity and culture: "But it does make me sad that we've forgotten our names. Out of everything, this seems to me the most tragic. I miss my own and I mourn for everyone else's, because I'd like to love them, but I don't know who they are."
R's stunning eloquence as a narrator is juxtaposed with his utter inability to articulate his thoughts verbally. He struggles to say simple words and phrases. After trying to communicate with Julie, who is human, R states his frustration: "Julie looks at me like she's waiting for more, and I wonder if I've expressed anything at all with my halting, mumbled soliloquy. Are my words ever actually audible, or do they just echo in my head while people stare at me, waiting? I want to change my punctuation. I long for exclamation marks, but I'm drowning in ellipses.” What I love about Marion's prose is the captivating beauty with which he expresses the conundrum of communication. While R's struggles have to do with his undead state, he also articulates what so many people (perhaps teenagers most especially) experience when they try to share their thoughts with others. I want to change my punctuation. Ah, if that isn't beautiful, self-reflexive language, I don't know what is.
Despite my love of the novel, I was quite skeptical that my students would enjoy it. The text is much more difficult than many YA novels (in fact, it would probably not be classified as YA, though many people pushed it since the movie is definitely geared toward teens). The plot (despite the whole zombie thing) moves rather slowly. Additionally, the end, while functional, raises lots of questions. However, as with all novels I read and want to share, I put it to the test by placing it in the classroom library, and I found it to be a wild success. There was a waiting list for it, and I could never keep it on the shelf. Students who aren't crazy about reading seemed to handle it relatively well, and they enjoyed it.
If you're considering teaching a contemporary, post-apocalyptic novel, this one might be a good choice for a variety of reasons. First, the syntax and style of the novel beg closer study. Additionally, Marion provokes thought about complex issues of identity, alienation, and the determination to live despite horrifying circumstances. I would consider teaching Warm Bodies in advanced upper level classes (such as AP Lang or AP Lit) because of the syntactical structure as well as the complex questions that it raises about what makes life valuable. It would also be a great text to study along side of the film because the film version made some drastic changes (including sparing the life of a major character). You could explore the way that audience impacts storytelling and consider why Hollywood producers might soften the grittier parts of a novel for a teen movie audience. Additionally, Marion creates parallels between Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and his own novel (which I discussed here), and that paired reading would be fun to explore as well.
“Peel off these dusty wool blankets of apathy and antipathy and cynical desiccation. I want life in all its stupid sticky rawness.”
Ah, the first day of school. In the case of my school, and many high schools around the nation, there are actually 2 first days, since it takes two days of block classes to get through one entire cycle of classes. At our school, we've been back four days, two full rotations. Things have gone wonderfully so far! It's always exciting to get back to work and to meet new students. Still, I often struggle with what to do on the first day. No one wants to spend ninety minutes on the syllabus, but some things have to be covered right away. Additionally, you want to set the right tone for the year. You want your students to understand right away that you will all work hard, but that you will also do that work together, and that you will look out for one another. You want to set clear guidelines but simultaneously let them know that you are there to support them, and that you will never give up on them. The list of things that you need to accomplish in that first day can seem astronomically long, especially to new teachers who are told things like "don't smile until after Thanksgiving." Here are a few rules I always follow on the first day:
Okay, so that was a long explanation about some of the factors that I consider that first day. Still, even after establishing those things as part of my first day procedures, I have continued to struggle with what to do for the rest of that day. Last year, we started the year with Veronica Roth's Divergent in English 9, so I jumped right into predictions and inferences, and we analyzed the front cover and read Chapter 1 together. (For more information on teaching Divergent, check out this post.) However, this year, I am beginning the year with Romeo and Juliet, and I couldn't quite bring myself to begin the year with "Two households, both alike in dignity," so I continued debating what to do instead.
The words of the freshmen from last year kept echoing in my head. They were proud of the letters that they wrote at the end of the year, and they had thought long and hard about what things they wish they had known about high school. (For information about the original assignment, see this post. The entire assignment was inspired by the awesome book The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finnyfrock, which addresses how difficult ninth grade can be for students.) Students asked, "Are you going to show them our letters? Are they going to read what I wrote?" (Some of the freshmen said more demanding things like, "You should MAKE them read EVERY ONE of these letters because we spent A LOT OF TIME writing them." Ah, the irony of those kinds of statements...). I wanted a way to share that advice with the new students.
I finally settled on a four part plan for the advice/goal setting part of the first day. First, I had students write three questions and/or concerns that they had about the upcoming year. (I'm glad I did this because I've had a chance to respond to their questions and concerns after they turned in their work.) Then I passed out enough letters for each student to have one to read. They read the letter and selected at least one piece of advice from it to record and reflect on. Once they were finished with the letter, they switched with someone else. They switched until they had read at least four letters. They pulled advice from each one of them, using both paraphrasing and direct quotes from the letters to record the advice.
After they had reviewed the letters and found advice, they shared out some of the things that they read with the class. We then transitioned into goal setting. The students reflected on their strengths and weaknesses in English class. Then, they set three specific goals for English class this year, and they established the steps that they would take to reach those goals.
Finally, as their exit slip, students wrote a paragraph about the connections between the goals that they set and the advice that they were given. They wrote about how following the advice could help them have a more successful freshman year. Many of them said that the advice letters gave them more confidence and made them feel that they were not alone. They also said that the advice impacted them and made them reconsider what was important (such as studying and doing homework, which some of them didn't do much of in middle school).
I wasn't sure how that assignment would go--I was especially worried that because I didn't know them yet, they would be dismissive or see it as a waste of time. Despite my initial uncertainty, I was quite pleased with the results and wound up being glad that I took the risk. What they wrote has given me insight into their worries and their perspective, and the activity made them feel more connected to the school community. The goals that they set were targeted and clear, and they give each student a particular focus as s/he moves forward into the first unit. They also gave me some insight into where the students are coming from and how I can help them.
Overall, I'm always amazed at how much students have to offer and at how much they can teach one another. Many of the things that the freshmen read were bits of advice I would never think to tell them, nor would it be as powerful coming from me. I'm glad that they started off the year learning from their older peers, and I look forward to seeing the ways that they grow this year and what advice they have to share by the end of it. Best wishes to all of my fellow educators who are currently settling into a new school year. May this be the best one yet!
As I made coffee this morning, I watched the Keurig flash "NOT READY" across its bright blue screen, and I thought me, either. I'm not quite ready to get back to it yet; I'm not quite ready for the summer to be over. Didn't it only just begin? I have one more glorious week of vacation left, and I intend to pack it full of fun. During that time, I will NOT berate myself for all of the things that I didn't accomplish this summer (if I say that, does it make it true?) and I WILL enjoy the time I have left (I kept trying to think of a less bleak way to say that--it's not as if the world is ending--but that pretty well sums up how it feels for most teachers as summer draws to a close). (NOTE: the wordle above comes from this wordpress blog post by Jeremy Butterfield, who has an excellent piece for National Grammar Day.)
Anyway, as I contemplate the coming school year, I'm considering what I will keep and what I will change. One thing that I will keep for the freshmen is the use of Everyday Edits. Provided by Education World, these grammar exercises are single paragraphs (2 copies per page, provided electronically and as a PDF) that contain 10 grammar mistakes. The mistakes generally address comma rules, capitalization, spelling, end punctuation, apostrophe usage, and occasionally run-on sentences.
The truth is that when I reflect on my units, grammar and vocabulary development are two areas in which I need work. I've read lots of research demonstrating that teaching either one in isolation is ineffective, which makes sense to me. However, incorporating them (especially grammatical concepts) in meaningful, authentic ways can be such a challenge that it results in doing nothing. Everyday Edits are not a fool-proof system and they certainly are not all-encompassing, but I find that they are a way to remind me (and the students) on a routine basis of the relevance and importance of understanding and utilizing good grammar. They also help students learn to become better editors, and help them learn how to look for grammatical and mechanical issues within their own writing. (Although I believe improving content is far more important in the revision process and that many students are too preoccupied with grammatical/mechanical errors, but that is a post for another day.)
This is the way that I use Everyday Edits in class:
I do use other bell ringers at the beginning of class (see poetry incorporation for another one that I use frequently), but this is one of my favorites because students love it (though I'm not entirely sure why) and they can do a large part of it prior to the beginning of class. It gives students who dread the time in between bells something constructive to do, while it doesn't penalize students who want to socialize until the bell rings. They can work at their own pace. I also like that it gives me a chance to quickly call on 10 different students for answers. We focus on making progress and we celebrate improvement. It can also transfer into the same kind of exercise with revising their own writing.
What do you do to incorporate grammar into your lessons? What kinds of activities do you do at the beginning of class? I hope this helps, and I'd love to know what kinds of activities you use.
Warning: If you are squeamish or like swimming in lakes blissfully unaware of the dangers that lurk below the water, you may want to skip the details included in the first Google search that I mention below.
Disclaimer: The brain sucking and flesh-eating amoeba that I mention below are discussed solely for the purpose of addressing what happens when you use keywords. The scientific facts are not studied and serve to illustrate a point about research, not to comment on the state of amoeba in southern lakes.
As you other educators have doubtlessly discovered, many students struggle with research. There are many reasons for this, but one that continually surprises me is the fact that they often do not know how to enter search terms. They will be researching an author, for example, and they will type the author’s name, but they will never consider the possibility of adding other words to the search or using a title or other descriptor in place of the name. They also struggle with scanning information and selecting the best hits, but that’s a struggle for another post. This post will focus on using search terms (and the horrifying amount of information that is available on the internet).
So, here’s the story. Yesterday I embarked on a water skiing adventure for the first time in about 20 years. Consequently, my first couple of attempts, I was slow to get out of the water. As you know if you’ve been dragged along by a boat without actually making it up to standing, the excruciating time from the initial motor rev of the boat until you pathetically let go of the tow rope involves mouthfuls and mouthfuls (and, in my case, nosefuls and nosefuls) of water.
The second time that I wiped out prior to standing up, I felt a full liter of water go down my left nostril. As a result, I could feel my left nostril begin to clog up (once I paused long enough to quit choking on the water that remained in my mouth and gushed down my throat).
By dinnertime, I felt congested enough to be mildly concerned. Still, I showered and went to bed without much worry. I fell asleep dreaming of skiing.
As often happens, I woke up around 2:00 AM. After I woke up, I found myself more concerned about the building congestion in my nose. It was then, after about thirty minutes of failed attempts to blow my nose and fall back to sleep, I did what all desperate people in the age of the internet and smart phones do: I reached over, opened up Safari on the phone, and then clicked on the search button. I typed in the following search on Google: getting lake water up nostrils.
This is the point where I encountered the brain-eating amoeba (Naegleria Fowleri). I know it sounds like some sort of horror movie absurdity, but at 2 AM when the internet tells you that it is a real problem, it seems nothing short of terrifying. Essentially, what I learned is that the amoeba attacks are extremely rare. (Did you get that, people who read the disclaimer, but are both squeamish and curious? They are EXTREMELY rare--you should keep swimming in lakes.) Additionally, the ideal water conditions are around 115 degrees Fahrenheit. However, they happen when the host (in this case, me) gets warm water (from southern lakes or thermal springs) up the nostrils. The amoebas settle in your nostril cavity and then pave their way from the nostrils up into the brain, where they feast on your brain matter until you die. Of all of the people that have had this happen since it was first recorded in the 1960s, only 1 person ever has survived. The time from initial contact to death is generally somewhere between 7 and 14 days, and in the meantime, the host experiences nausea, vomiting, headaches, neck stiffness, and loss of memory.
(As a point of reference in the category of research/ scanning/ paraphrasing, I paraphrased all of the above information from a quick scan of several sources. The information is an amalgamation of what I gleaned from my quick 2 AM perusal.)
As you can imagine, I instantly found myself worrying less about my nasal congestion and more about whether I had other symptoms of the amoeba invasion. For the record, anyone who has ever attempted water skiing knows that a stiff neck, potential headache, and pain in all other muscles seems to be pretty standard.
The prospect of sleep dissipated into oblivion.
Part of the problem with this particular search was that ALL of the top hits were about the brain-eating amoeba. I did what good researchers do (though somehow this post is becoming more about brain eating amoeba and less about research) and tried another keyword search.
This time I tried lake water causing sickness. Big mistake. That one looked even scarier, so I went back to my original search. I scanned the relevant information before selecting hits to actually read. I also managed to ignore all of the articles about the amoeba (I feel the need to reiterate that they are brain-eating each time I mention them) for quite a while. I even exited the search, realizing that it was not relevant and would not help with the real problem I was having.
However, as often happens, once I saw the terrifying lines and the abundance of similar hits, I was intrigued and had to read everything. I tore into the graphic details of several of the hits—I had plenty of time since sleep was impossible. I finally read a PBS article in which the author kindly tried to minimize the fear, ending with the statement, “know your risks, make sure water isn’t jammed up your nose [easy for you to say when you aren’t the one getting pummeled by a ski wipeout!], and enjoy the warm weather.”
When I found myself unable to feel assured enough to drift back to sleep, I finally wandered into the living room. Fortunately, insomnia runs in my family and this was a family visit, so my father was still up. I eventually admitted my tragic discovery and he assured me that the water was not in fact warm enough to end my life through a brain-eating smorgasbord. However, he then went on to say, “I don’t mean to scare you, but…” (I should pause here to explain that one of the first lessons I learned in life was that when my father says that statement, whatever comes next will undoubtedly terrify me.) “There have been several reports of flesh-eating amoeba in the lakes.” He went on to describe in vivid detail an incident with one particular victim, which I will spare you here as I attempt to return focus to the merits of keywords when doing research (though I’m sure you could find the account, and lots of others, with a quick Google search).
Charming, Dad. As you can imagine, my terror moved from terror about my brain to terror about the flesh that houses my brain.
Anyway, I assured him that I was feeling better and that I’d go back to sleep.
After another twenty minutes of staring at the ceiling, I finally reached over for my phone once again. (I can sense you groaning as you read this statement, for by now we all know how these kinds of searches, especially the ones in the middle of the night, turn out.)
This time, after careful reflection, I considered what I truly wanted to know and typed stuffy nose after skiing.
Ta-da! After that search, I found tons of information about people who had experienced similar aftereffects post-skiing and lake swimming. These articles and chat forums focused on using saline solutions to clean out the nasal cavity, and many people discussed the pros and cons of nose plugs.
While I know that this seems far removed from student research, it led me to an important realization about the importance of search terms in the research process. Although my first search accurately described what happened, my later search focused on the effects of the incident, and therefore provided the information that I most needed to know.
Overall research lesson? Modify your search terms and keep looking until you find the information most relevant and useful to you. And above all, DON’T PANIC.
(Image above comes from AnimalShak)
K. Ashley Dickson-Ellison is a former high school English teacher (who is now an instructional technology teacher) interested in exploring the integration of trending young adult literature into the English classroom experience. Ashley is also a member of the podcast Unabridged; check out the podcast site below.
Please note: All ideas and opinions are my own and do not represent my current or past employers.
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.