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I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Oklahoma City. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2309. I am a Democrat, a union activist and a worker for social justice. I also am a Christian (Congregationalist). I play chess and coach our school chess team.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Day 21: Is it really day 21 already? Why the Finns are #1 in education

A classroom in Finland
We have been at school for nearly a month now. It once was that this day would begin the first or second week of "real classes" after having gotten the "back to school" first week behind us. Heck, once this week was the last week of summer when we went to school on the Tuesday after Labor Day.

I read an interesting article in this month's Smithsonian magazine entitled "Why Are Finland's Schools Successful? According to the article, Finland doesn't give its students the type of standardized tests that American education systems so love except for one in the senior year. One quote from the essay really stood out for me.

It’s almost unheard of for a child to show up hungry or homeless. Finland provides three years of maternity leave and subsidized day care to parents, and preschool for all 5-year-olds, where the emphasis is on play and socializing. In addition, the state subsidizes parents, paying them around 150 euros per month for every child until he or she turns 17. Ninety-seven percent of 6-year-olds attend public preschool, where children begin some academics. Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Stu­dent health care if free.

In the US, many would call this socialism! (It is really a part of social democracy, but few rightwingers know or care about the difference.) It seems to work in Finland, at least.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Days 16-20: I Got, Got, Got, Got, No Time


I have skipped a few days this week, actually, nearly the entire week. It seems like I have no time to get things like blogging done because I am full of all the things I have to do as a teacher during the week.

For example, during the school day I have 45 minutes of planning time to do things like, well, plan lessons. Of course, there are papers to be graded, parents to be called, department and professional learning team reports to be filled out. Many days I have to get paperwork to the principal's secretary, the financial secretary, or the activities director. Oh, and there's that man who wants to visit my seniors about a college they might be able to attend. Need to get back in touch with him. Wasn't there a professional development course that I needed to sign up for? And so it goes.

Since the students' learning day has been extended 30 minutes, we are supposed to be able to go home at the end of the class day, 2:40pm, but I have yet to be able to get out of the building before 3:30, and that was only because I had to attend my AFT Executive Board meeting to review our 2011-12 contract. Then we had the ratification vote on Thursday in a fairly raucous session that lasted from 4:30 to 6:00pm. After that, I went to the city football previews because several of my students who play football asked me if I would come watch them, and I told them I would. (I missed the game tonight, however.) Most of the time I get out of the building around 4:30 after arriving at 6:45.

Still, I am behind on my grading. I need to plan my lessons better. (Today, the principal walked into my room at the end of my 3rd period. I ran out of lesson with about 10 minutes of class time, and I stupidly hadden planned for an "enrichment" activity with the dead time.

Saturday is Labor Fest, so Cat and I will be involved in activities all day. That leaves me with Sunday to get lesson plans done for the week and perhaps a little more caught up on my grading.

Anyone who thinks that teachers work 7 hours a day 9 months a year should be boiled in his own tea!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Days 13, 14, 15: Some Interesting Facts About My Students


I found out some interesting things about my students.

I got the results from the reading test my students took. This test scored the students on their reading grade level meaning that if a student read on the level of an average 10th grader, it would show that s/he was reading at 10.6 (10th grade, 6th month).

According to the test, this is how the 11th graders at our school level out on their reading abilities.
We have:
1 at 3rd grade
5 at 4th
7 at 5th
16 at 6th
9 at 7th
5 at 8th
4 at 9th
3 at 11th
2 at 12th
and 12 reading at the Post High School level.

This is how the 12th graders are doing with their reading
2 a the 4th grade level
3 at the 5th
7 at the 6th
13 at the 7th
7 at the 8th
9 at the 9th
2 at the 10th
1 at the 11th
1 at the 12th
and 5 are at the post High School level


I am not writing about this to gain pity points. I accept the challenge that these numbers represent. But I hope this makes clear both the problems and opportunities we who teach in urban school districts have.

We continued our reading of Native American myths and Beowulf in the 11th and 12th respectively. On Friday, I used some graphic organizers that I found on a very good website that I highly recommend to my fellow teachers.

The weekend is here!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Day 12: Open House

Open House at Centennial

Today the juniors continued reading Native American myths by reading the story "Coyote and Buffalo Bull", another trickster tale. This one comes from a Pacific Northwest tribe.

The seniors read about the fight between Beowulf and Grendal. They analyze the examples of alliteration in the passage.

The big event of the day was Open House at Centennial. We had our biggest parent participation since I've been teaching at the school. I think it is the signal of a new level of enthusiasm by Centennial's patrons.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Day 11: The Evaluation That Wasn't


Today the 11th grade studied one of the Coyote Tales as a way of learning and analyzing the Trickster archetype. Their homework assignment is to take a modern day trickster like Bugs Bunny, Spongebob, The Joker or some other and do a brief comparison and contrast essay comparing the two tricksters.

The 12th grade read Beowulf's speech before King Hrothgar where Beowulf states his purpose for coming to Denmark and boasts of his past victories over enemies and monsters. Their homework assignment is to write a similar boast telling of their past accomplishments and those that they hope to accomplish in the future.

Today we had a faculty meeting where we were supposed to be told about the new evaluation system using the Marzano teaching model as its basis. However, at the meeting we were informed that the evaluation had NOT been developed, and that we would be evaluated using the old model that has been in place for several years now.

In education, we are used to things like this.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Day 10 and the Weekend, an offer to coach a chess team

Tricksters Old and New
Bit of catching up to do.

Friday, the senior class got into the poem Beowulf at last starting with the problems the creature "Grendal" causes for the Danes. I love the way that Maurice Sagoff, the creator of Shrinklits condenses this part of the epic Monster Grendel's tastes are plainish.\Breakfast? Just a couple Danish.

The juniors read Langston Hughes' story "Salvation" in which he tells about a time when he "faked" being saved in a church revival to please his aunt and everyone else in the congregation. It is another example of the kind of reflective essay the students are going to be writing soon. I had something similar happen to me which I wrote about in a blog entry entitled "Camp Meeting".

This weekend has been part school preparation and part home remodeling. We are going to install new cabinets in the kitchen, so the old ones had to be taken out, moved actually. The old are being relocated in the our pantry to make way for the new.

I have also been working on my lesson plans for next week. The people who believe that teachers only work from 8am to 3pm don't know what they are talking about.

I also found out that Casady Schools wants to talk to me about becoming the coach for their middle school chess club. I held a chess camp for them over the summer, which I really enjoyed. If this works out as I think it will, I will be sponsoring three different scholastic chess groups: Centennial, The Village Library, and Casady.

Next week, the seniors continue with Beowulf while the juniors will be reading and working with Native American creation and trickster tales.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Day 8 & 9: A Couple of Good Days


I missed a day yesterday (if anyone noticed). So I've got a bit of catching up to do.

On Wednesday, the students took their "I Am" poems to the media center's computer lab and turned them into Word documents that can be displayed as posters. The students did a good job of creating their poem posters. We have our open house on August 16th, so the students will be able to display their creativity to their parents.

Today, Thursday, I took a different turn with both classes. The juniors began a unit on writing a reflective essay while the seniors began a unit on Beowulf. I showed them a Power Point presentation on the heroic quest archetype to introduce them to the Anglo-Saxon epic.

The school got some good news today. The progress our high school made last year means that we are not on the state's school improvement list. We would have made "Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP), but we fell short in only one category, graduation. We had too many of our freshman students fail to graduate in 4 years, evidently. Of course, these were the first years of our school during which we began in one building and ended up in another. We had to work in a grossly overcrowed building when we finally did move in. It was not the sort of environment conducive to retaining and nurturing students to graduation.

Now that we are in our building with one less grade level in the building, I think we have an excellent chance to succeed with our student body. We have some great students going here, and we are getting help with the Common Core Standards.

I am looking forward to the success our students are going to have.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Day 7: I need to "up" my game


Today I tried to get the students to engage in "active reading": reading that goes beyond the words of the text to where the students think about what they are reading. This includes being aware of the work's purpose, figures of speech, images, and so on.

Frankly, my teaching did no go all that well. I had trouble getting the students' focus away from each other and into the text. This was something that the people who observed my class yesterday noted on the observation form they gave to me. Clearly, I am going to need to revise my teaching methods, up my "game" so to speak if I am ever going to succeed at the level I am being asked to attain.

I am going to have to go out of my "comfort zone" as a teacher and try new methods.

One problem I am having is keeping the students "on task". I am going to go over what I was taught in the week before school to see where I need to change my method.
All I ask is that the district is patient with me as I and my colleagues move in new directions.

Change can be threatening, but I have reinvented myself before, and I can do it again.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Day 6: Graphic Organizers and Note Taking


Today I worked with students to teach some learning skills. With the juniors, I had them analyze the 1st paragraph to M. Scott Momaday's Way to Rainy Mountain.

I had the seniors take notes on the Anglo-Saxons and their culture using the Cornell note taking method.

I felt I was more successful with the juniors. They created web diagrams that noted the nature imagery in the paragraph. I think the main reason that the exercise was successful was that the students experienced a feeling of success when they correctly identified the images. As I walked around the room, the kids showed me what they had discovered. They discussed whether or not the items they discovered were images or not. I believe that they learned something about analysis and imagery.

The note taking was not as successful for the same reason that the junior was. The students could not feel real success by successfully taking notes. I think that giving students an opportunity to feel success is something I will endeavor to build into my lessons wherever possible.

Something else of note, today my teaching was observed three times. Once by a representative from the Marzano people, once by one of the assistant principals, and then by both the Marzano rep and the assistant principal together. This is all a part of being a "School Improvment Grant" (SIG) school under NCLB's "transformation model." I'm actually glad to have someone come in and look over what I'm doing. I can use all the help I can get. I compare teaching to other professionals like lawyers and doctors who are said to have a "practice", not a job. Teaching is a practice, and I'm always trying to practice at my best, but I'm still practicing my craft.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The First Weekend

I spent most of my weekend relaxing, but also preparing for the next week and the rest of the year.

Saturday, Cat, my wife, and I went on a date. We were finally able to see the final Harry Potter movie, afterwhich we went to a nice Italian restaurant. Cat teaches English also at another Oklahoma City school. (We steal ideas from each other on a regular basis.)
In addition to some great together time, I began reading a book on education entitled Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education written by Clark Aldrich. Can't say that I'm all that impressed with the book or the author's program. He takes the standard line that our schools, as they now exist, were designed for a more linear Industrial Age and don't fit today's non-linear world. Many of his recommendations seem to be more doable for home schoolers. (In fact, he seems to feel that only home schoolers are doing a good job of educating.) Aldrich recommends having children work with live animals, and not just pets! He also calls for children to work as apprentices or interns to get real world experience. One could do that if one had one or two children to education, but it's not really something I can use in my line of work.

Next week I begin to add more content to the curriculum. I'll still be working on the Rituals and Routines, but the 11th graders will be working on study skills like note-taking and graphic organizing. The 12th graders will start on early British literature. Beowulf here we come!

Friday, August 05, 2011

Day 5: Testing Redux, Redux and "Way to Rainy Mountain"

Rainy Mountain, Wichita Wildlife Refuge near Lawton, Oklahoma
Finally got finished with the GM Reading test today. A few students were absent on either of the first two days, so they had one part of the test to make up. My 7th hour finished the vocabulary because I ran out of answer sheets on Wednesday for them. Those who were not testing read M. Scott Mommaday's wonderfully lyrical essay "Way to Rainy Mountain". Next week we are supposed to do the first of the district's "Benchmark" exams that are designed to measure what our students know and do not know about reading and writing.

I wish I could do this without giving my students yet another standardized test.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Day 4: Testing, Testing, Testing, Redux


Another day of testing today. We are administering the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Tests® to our students to determine their reading needs. Yesterday they were tested on vocabulary. Today they did the reading portion of the test. Most of the students seemed to take the test seriously, but I am worried that they will experience "test burn-out" by the time we get to the End of Instruction exams in April.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Day 3: Testing, Testing, Testing

Today, we tested, the first of many certainly. This was the Gates Reading Test to determine the students' reading levels. I think this will yeild useful information. I'm curious about the reading levels of my students. I have suspicion that many are reading well below grade level, but this will give me a better indication.

My question is, what then? I am not trained in reading remediation. If I find that Jesse reads at the 6th grade level, then what should I do. I am not asking this as a rhetorical question or to simply show dispair. I really want to be a good teacher, one who meets his students' needs, but sometimes I feel that the ocean is so big and my boat is so small.

Another problem I had arose when they were finished with the test. The portion of the test they took today was over vocabulary.Explaining the test took about 5 minutes, and taking it took 20 minutes. I ended up with 10-15 minutes after the test. I spent the time talking about some of the class procedures, but I felt as those I didn't use the leftover time well.

When I came to my last hour's class, I had run out of test answer sheets. So I had the students read M. Scott Momaday's essay "Way to Rainy Mountain", and had the students write a couple of paragraphs about home and family as well as summarize the Kiowa legend Momaday recounts in the book. Later they will be writing a reflective essay, so I felt it would be useful to read a reflective account that we can return to later.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Second day of teaching: better than the first


Today I had the students write a poem. More specifically, they were following a "poem pattern" known as the "I Am" poem. The pattern gave the students a lead in phrase followed by a suggestion on how to complete the line. For example, the first line of the poem read: I am name two things that describe you. The student could complete it by writing, I am a loving and caring person. The rest of the poem asked them to name things that concerned them, that made them happy, that they look forward to, and so forth.

Most of the students took to the assignment well. Many of the poems I read revealed things to me about my students I could not have imagined.

Then I had the students exchange their poems with someone. They read each others poems and picked out a line they liked in it. They wrote the line down and wrote why they liked it. My purpose in doing this comes from the fact that I am trying to engender a more postive atmosphere in my class and in my school than often exists now.

Tomorrow the students are taking a reading test, the first of many they will take this year. I am not certain how well that will go over, but I will give it my best effort.

Monday, August 01, 2011

I begin the new school year.

Oklahoma Centennial High School
This year I begin my 18th year as a public school teacher. Going back to my days as a graduate assistant teacher at the University of Oklahoma, I have taught for 33 years. School began today, the earliest it has ever begun in the Oklahoma City Public School District, as the beginning of our "Continuous Learning Calendar". The theory is that with a shortened summer break, our students will retain more of what they learned the past year. We will see how that plays out.

Another wrinkle that has been added to my school is the fact that we are now under the "Transformational model" for a "Needs Improvement" school. This means that we are under a special mandate to improve our instruction and our students' learning. As a part of that, we attended a one week seminar the week before school, for which we were compensated. We learned about the "Marzano Model" of instruction developed by Robert J. Marzano in his book The Art and Science of Teaching among other works on instruction.

As I said, today was the first day,and I am attempting to teach my students the "Rituals and Routines" of the classroom, those practices that will lead to a classroom where learning can take place. I can tell that I will need to work more with the students. They will need much practice, but we have made a start.

My plan is this: I will do my very best to follow the methods of instruction that I am being taught. And I will report the results of those methods in this blog. The focus will be me, my successes and failures. I will not make any negative judgements about those methods, nor will there be anything criticism of my administration, my school, or my students. I simply want to report how I am doing as a teacher, and let others make their own judgements about me and me alone.