Monday, September 3, 2012

Labor Day weekend: What an emotional roller coaster!

This Labor Day weekend is only the second one since 1978 and the eleventh out of my whole life that I am not preparing for school as a student, a teacher or a parent. I’m not checking out the clothes in my closet or my kids’ (they’ve been adults for years now and no longer require my fashion input) for that perfect and most crucial First Day Outfit. I’m not checking the tote bags in the entrance hall for the necessary school supplies. I’m not reviewing my teaching folders for syllabi, lesson plans and class schedules. I’m not fretting over whether BFFs will still be BFFs on Tuesday, or if the mean kids will infect my children’s happiness, or if I’ll encounter students so recalcitrant and so indifferent about learning that I’ll wonder why, oh why, I ever chose to lead a classroom. A feeling of having forgotten to do something but not being able to remember what it is has dogged my last three days.

Finally, in the middle of last night, I dinged onto the Why and What. I’m missing all of the anticipation, the anxiety, the fear of the unknown and the joy that always accompanied every new school year because I have always loved school…from both sides of the desk.

For the last few weeks, my daughter and her husband have experienced the gamut of school-related emotions as their daughters began third grade and kindergarten on August 27th. Last weekend, my granddaughters regaled my husband and me with a new school clothes fashion show. The eve of their first day, they chatted with me on the phone, enthusing about their teachers, how happy they were to reconnect with friends they hadn’t seen all summer and about their anxiety for the unknowns that they would face. 

While walking my dog, Tommy, these last few days I’ve talked with friends who have school-aged kids about the joys and sorrows surrounding the end of summer and the start of a new year of classes, teachers and homework. During lunch with a few old colleagues and through discussions with teachers still in the classroom on Facebook and in emails, I listened to their concerns about AYP, standardized tests and class schedules and felt their excitement, their passion for teaching and meeting new students. Do these situations cause a twinge of sadness for what was? Sure, but on its tail is a sigh of relief. It’s their time, now, and mine to continue forging the new pathways I began after I retired from the classroom in June of 2011.

Still, in every situation, my heart and mind echoed with the Battle of Emotions between the armies of Loss and Relief. The loss came from the fact I loved watching my children (as a parent) and other parents’ children (as a teacher) grow academically, emotionally and socially into responsible, reliable and respectful adults. Relief because I no longer had to worry about how to help them through rough times academically, emotionally and socially, or have to wake up way before dawn, face a mountain of papers to grade or a
classroom where students dared me to turn them on to the love of learning was welcome, too, though.

The bottom line is, I love most everything about school and always will. As a student, reading, writing, history, science, geography, art and music entranced me. Math? Not so much. I had a hard time caring about when Train A and Train B (both going at different speeds) would meet as long as I wasn’t on either of them. Instead, I’d imagine stories about the people on the trains. Why were they there? Where were they going? 

Were they speeding away from or rushing toward a destination? Did I cry in ninth grade when Pam and Franny decided that I was the third wheel and became BFFs? Sure. Did I learn about true friendship and loyalty when Bev and Linda, friends since kindergarten, welcomed me back into their circle without any questions or snide comments about my detour to PamFran land? I sure did. Did fear, anticipation, indignation, pride and angst vie for first place in my emotional closet? Sure. But that was all a part of growing up.

As a parent, did I shed tears, cloaked in the privacy of night, when my children were experiencing academic or social issues? Yes. Did I worry whether they would turn that big project for history or English in on time when they chose to chat on the phone or watch reruns of Seinfeld or Three’s Company instead of working? Yes. Did I lose sleep wondering if they would get into their first choice colleges? Yes, but I also loved seeing my children’s excitement when they were turned on to ideas and concepts that made them think, and when they realized that they could accomplish more intellectually than they ever thought possible. Only school could do that for them.

As a teacher, did my frustration level soar when I encountered students who felt they were too cool for school or whose sense of apathetic entitlement challenged my patience? Of course. Did the petty dictates of a few administrators puffed up with their newly awarded power cause nights of teeth grinding? Of course. Did I despise waking to the clanging of my alarm clock at 4:45AM? Of course. More importantly, though, I relished my students’ lively book discussions and celebrated their happiness when they realized that they could express themselves orally and in writing. Their confidence in their newfound skills and abilities not only warmed my heart but also encouraged me to create lessons that dared them to keep on reaching higher and trying harder.

So, am I missing all of the anticipation, the anxiety, the fear of the unknown and the joy that always accompanies every new school year? Yes I am, because I have always loved school and always will…from both sides of the desk.

Happy School Days,

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Teachers: Save your Weekends

How do we light the flame of learning in our students with lessons that are motivational, interactive, and substantial without spending our weekends creating lesson plans for the next week? My colleagues have teased me for years about how I am so proactive with my planning, but I just smile, knowing that my weekends are mine, and not the school district’s.
In order to create detailed lesson plans, to adapt selected teaching literature ideas to each specific unit, and to provide reinforcement from a variety of handouts, worksheets and assessments, I have to consider:

  • Who is learning (address  student needs and learning styles)
  •  What my students know and I want them to know
  • Where I want them to end up
  • When I want them to learn (Time-Frame)
  • Why (objectives: begin with the end in mind)
  • How (Directed Method and/or Constructivist Method)
  • Closure (What are three ideas/concepts/skills will students take with them each day?)

For every unit I divide the lessons into daily increments that summarize the class work, tests and quizzes for that day.  I print off an agenda, in calendar format, which includes homework and projects, too, and hand them out the first day of the unit.  I design the units to take approximately one month, depending on the length of time given for each class period. Each day is comprised of three of the Program of Studies strands: literature, vocabulary, grammar, writing, research and oral presentations. Studies show that following the Rule of Three holds students’ attention better and results in better retention.

This agenda method increases responsibility by offering students a time- management rubric. Students are always be aware of what will occur in the next class and can prepare. Procrastinating students can no longer offer any excuses for unfinished homework or for coming to class unprepared for planned assessments. Many parents also request copies so they can be aware of the assignments and assessments for each unit.

The time limit for each aspect of the daily lesson is malleable, allowing for adjustments according to class needs and student understanding. Teachers can adapt it so discussions or lessons that ran over from the previous day or that were interrupted for assemblies, or cancelled due to inclement weather, etc. can be completed. Although teachers will have to orally note the changes for the students, this is a minor issue. Because of the elasticity of the discussion times on the agendas, I can still finished on schedule without omitting any of the lessons because I combine some activities into group or individual work and shorten the vocabulary and grammar activities.

Most days a literature discussion will comprise the bulk of the period. Studying the writing process takes place on days when we brainstorm essay topics, and on peer critique days. To increase student writing, believing as I do that the more they write the better they will master writing skills and techniques, I use daily openers where they write for ten minutes while they settle down and I take roll. Some days, I choose specific concepts that crop up in the papers during grading, using anonymous student examples for prompts that reinforce grammar, usage and writing concepts.

Here is an example of my unit planning method using Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.  The agenda presents the novel in 24 chapters with an introductory session for reading The Custom House and a concluding segment, Endicott and the Red Cross.  The following steps show how to set up a unit study. This is long because I have tried to clarify what I am doing and why. Your plans won’t be as detailed because you know your what, how and why.

Common Core Anchor Standards:
Reading: R1, R2, R3, R4, R5, R6, R10
Writing: W1, W2, W3, W4, W5, W10
Speaking and Listening: SL1, SL2, SL3, SL4, SL10
Language: L1, L2, L6
5 W’s and H:

  • Who (A Grade 11 class with students showing mixed skills in comprehension and writing.)
  • What and Where: elements of the Colonial period, literary terms, elements of fiction concepts, and writing (analytic or creative, or both)
  • When: Divide the book into sets of four chapters each. This is a total of twelve ninety-minute block periods or twenty-one fifty-five minute periods.
  • How: 
1.   Set aside one day for the introduction to the unit, one day for Custom House, one for the discussion of each set of chapters, one for the concluding segment, one for drafting essays, one for peer critiquing the essays and for reviewing unit concepts, one day for the test and to start viewing the movie and one day to finish the movie and for closure. 
2.   Choose teaching ideas.
3.   Select vocabulary from the novel and focal literary terms.
4.   Choose the types of writing students will complete.
5.   After reviewing the needs of the students, decide what grammar will be taught in conjunction with student writing

By the time the book is completed,  I have incorporated all seven concepts of Bloom’s Taxonomy into their lessons: Evaluation, Synthesis, Analysis, Application, Comprehension and Knowledge.

Teacher Notes:
Day 1: Introduction:
A.    Students will divide into small groups and brainstorm what they know about the Colonial Period. 
B.     Group Charts showing their knowledge of the literature, history and societal mores of this period.  The charts are tacked up around the classroom so students can take notes.
C.     The story is introduced by using a clip from the film (starring Daniel Day Lewis), and books are handed out.
D.    Hand out the vocabulary (25 words) for the unit with the page numbers along with directions for students to: define the word according to how it is used in the text, and compose an original sentence that shows the meaning of the word.
E.     I explain the process for the Peer Pal assignment: (Peer Pals.  Pair each student with one in their class or another one that is studying the same piece of literature. Each day the first student writes a letter responding to the assigned pages.  The teacher collects all logs and passes them out to the partners in the next class.  That student reads his/her partners’ writing and responds to what was said and/or opens another topic from the assigned section. Ideas that can be discussed include: facts presented, concepts, personal
reactions, confusions, response to characters and their actions/decisions, themes: what is the author saying about society; what should the author have included; what scene(s) is unnecessary.  Taboo discussions: any personal discussions not related to book.  No attacks on what a partner wrote; just agree or disagree with any statements, interpretations.  No discussions of who the partner is should occur, either. Identities may be revealed at the end of the unit if both parties agree).
F. Students are allotted ten minutes to write their letter, and ten minutes to respond to their partner’s thoughts. 
G. Review the homework assignment: (Read the section, The Custom House and write Peer Pal Letter #1 on how contemporary society “brands” people who break societal rules.
Day 2:
A.  Review the homework for knowledge and understanding.
B.  Write Peer Pal letter #2 on their reaction to the pages just discussed.
C.  Grammar (phrases and clauses): students write sentences from their vocabulary assignment on the board. Discuss.
D.  The last 20 minutes, students will read the homework assignment (Chapters 1-4).
Days 3-8:
A.  Forty-five to fifty minutes a day: Discuss the previous night’s assigned set of chapters.
B.  Complete a Peer Pal Letter.
C.  Either a grammar lesson utilizing sentences from their letters or the vocabulary sentences.
Day 8:
A.  Students brainstorm essay topics.
B.   Practice writing thesis statements
C.   Homework: Read Endicott and the Red Cross, write a Peer Pal Letter and choose an essay topic.
Day 9:
A.  Discuss the reading assignment.
B.  Write a draft for their essay. 
C.  Homework: Finish the rough draft and complete the tenth and last Peer Pal Letter covering their final thoughts on the book. 
Day 10:
A.  Students critique each other’s essays. 
B.   Review the book.  
C.   Homework: Revise the final draft of their essay and study for the test.
Day 11:
A.  Test on The Scarlet Letter.
B.   Final draft of the essay is due.  
C.   Peer Pal Letters are due.
D.   View the movie, The Scarlet Letter.
Day 12:
A.  Complete viewing the movie.
B.   In groups, students complete the Comparing Books and Movies worksheet (see Notes at the end of this essay).

This planning took me one hour.  All that I have left is to jot down some teacher-generated discussion prompts, type up a list of the vocabulary words from the book and create a test.  The flexibility lies in the daily Peer Pal Letters and the grammar/vocabulary discussions, which I can shorten if we need more time for the literature analysis.  In addition, students can complete the essay rough draft for homework, giving an extra day to focus on any objectives that need more emphasis.  Students can write their Peer Pal Letters for homework, leaving the response step for class.  I prefer that students write them in class so they are finished for the next lesson.

This method of unit planning provides a variety of benefits for teachers.  When deciding on the day-by-day structures, teachers need to insure that whenever possible, essays, tests, projects and any other assessments come due on Mondays through Thursdays. To avoid burn-out, weekends should not be used for grading. Another major plus is that I never have to worry about life getting in the way of teaching. When emergencies, illnesses, unannounced observations and other factors threaten my stress level, I know that I have my preset agenda on which to fall back. 

This method allows me the freedom to expend my teaching energies where they are most needed: with the students.  With some tweaking and explanations, I can leave these plans for a substitute teacher, also. Where I would have held a class discussion, for example, I have the students work individually or in groups to address any literature points I had wanted to cover.

Agendas offer clear paths of communication between a teacher and the students, a teacher and parents, and a teacher and administrators.  The goals and objectives are always set from the first moment of planning, and the activities, assignments, projects and assessments follow.   Not only do I cover all of my bases with this method, but I have also KEPT MY WEEKENDS for me. Give it a shot. Don’t lose your precious Saturdays and Sundays.

Update Note: The Unit Structure, Common Core and Activities Plan charts are from my book, The House of Comprehension, released in March 2013.

Happy Teaching,

Target, K-Mart, Walmart, CLASSMART

From the time I was five-years-old when I accompanied my mother on my very first school supply shopping trip, I have been mesmerized by overflowing shelves of notebooks, pencils, pens and crayons. Those of us of a certain age can remember the dusty, musty nose-tickling aroma of those flip-top, pulp paper notebooks with the blue lines, especially those with the dotted line sandwiched by the solid lines. Nirvana! And what could be better than a new box of sharp crayons?

Decades later, my heart still leaps in late July when the first wave of store circulars welcoming the start of school appear in the Sunday supplements section of the newspaper. But now, from my side of the retirement desk, I wistfully push my cart around those alluring stacks of spiral notebooks and black pens. When I was still in the classroom, only I could use colored pens. I leaned towards purple or green, depending on my mood, for those few adolescents who couldn’t seem to understand that they must have something to write on and something to write with when they came to class. No longer do I search for supplies that would keep me healthy and sane, except for a much abbreviated bag of goodies for my home office, but oh, what lifesavers they were in the classroom!

Not one college professor warned me that as autumn leaves started to fall, or when winter chose to aid and abet cold and flu viruses, I would be surrounded by  an avalanche of sneezing, snurfing, coughing students seeking comfort from their stuffed up nasal passages and scratchy throats in the soothing presence of  Mrs. Casserly, AKA: Mama Cass. Oh, those professors armed me with lesson planning and teaching techniques that served me admirably throughout my 30+ years in the classroom, but they failed to mention the saving graces of Kleenex, Lysol, a coffee/tea maker and a radio/CD player. And chocolate.
Here is my CLASSMART Lifesaver List:
1.      An extra-large bottle of hand cleanser.
2.      Kleenex: boxes and boxes of Kleenex. Enough said.
(If you check out my About Me page on my website:, you will see these two items front and center on my desk in my old haunt, Room 216).
3.      Lysol spray: for those students who sneezed or coughed on their homework or tests and then tried to hand the tainted papers to me. Talk about Germ Warfare! When they did, I smiled, handed them the can and urged them to go into the hall and de-germ those weapons of mass congestion.
4.      A large bottle of Tylenol: for those mornings when I forlornly realized that the cut-glass scratchiness in the back of my nose was the result of free-range germs.
5.      A four-cup Mr. Coffee maker and a file cabinet filled with coffee-flavored coffee (okay, so I threw in a mocha java) and Constant Comment and Earl Gray tea bags.
6.      My aging, but still working Boom Box, complete with a radio, CD player and tape deck.  Students had to be untethered from their phones, IPods, etc during school hours but music could set the mood for a lesson. A little Chopin, on low, worked well during in-class writing sessions. The songs, “Stars” and “Dog Eat Dog”, from Le Miserables always jump started lively discussions during our study of The Stranger. And when that first snowflake fell, we checked the All Weather channel periodically.
7.      Sturdy Paper cups (Hydration rules!) and plates. A strategically planned cultural event (“Parties are frowned upon in this establishment.” I borrowed this clip from one of my favorite commercials) could charge up sluggish gray matter and boost camaraderie.
8.      Multi-roll package of Paper Towels. An absolute necessity for cleaning up everything from Animal Cracker crumbs to water spills to zabaglione (a student took ethnic food over the top during a Romeo and Juliet cultural event).
9.      Stapler, scotch tape, paper clips, sharp scissors and glue sticks. Those anchored my private stash, which students knew better than to raid. Any student who forgot doomed his or her peers to Lecture #572: Violation of Personal Space, which wasn’t pretty.
10.   Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. Just like burgers need fries and eggs need bacon (or sausage), grading that stack of essays called for the fruit of the cocoa bean…in any form.

This CLASSMART list saved my sanity and my sick days over and over again. And although I, like Elvis, have left the building, I thought it timely to share it with colleagues who still face close encounters with hormonal types. I hope it helps you all to stay healthy during this crazy summer/fall/winter/spring weather.

Happy Teaching,

In Defense of Teenagers

A memorable March day before I retired from teaching,  I plunked my basket stacked with a gallon of milk, some boneless chicken breasts, a bunch of romaine lettuce and numerous other items onto the end of the conveyer belt at the grocery store. Suddenly, I was greeted by the mother of one of my students. We chatted about what her kids were up to as we waited. When I reached the front of the line, the checkout woman smiled and cooed in a voice reserved for those who teach the elementary grades, "Ooh, are you a teacher?"

"Yes," I said, grinning widely.

"What grade do you teach?"

"Seniors for English, but grades nine through twelve in my electives."

Immediately, she backed away from me and locked her arms across her chest as if to ward off any stray adolescent cooties that might be clinging to my clothes. Her voice dropped the saccharine tone, adopting a sneer as she stated, "Oh. How do you stand them?"

I bit my tongue from lashing out, "I sure hope you don't have any kids, honey, if that's your attitude," since I didn't want to wear the cherry pie she was scanning.

Why is it that so many people view teenagers as creatures from a two o'clock in the morning nightmare? Is it
the barrage of totally unrealistic movies from Hollywood? The way the print and broadcast news media plaster the newspapers and airways with stories about the gangstas, the druggies and the dropouts? Is it their frustration dealing with their own children at the age where all adolescents, to some degree, catch the crazies as they embody walking, talking hormones?

An old friend once told me that teenagers are wired to act as they do to make it easier for us to say, “Good-bye” to them when they leave the nest. Whatever the cause(s), I invite all those who think adolescents need to be neither seen nor heard until they are twenty-one to visit the nearest middle or high school. Once there, they need to look at the trophies for sports, ROTC, band, science fairs, and music, art and drama competitions (to name only a few) shimmering proudly on the glass shelves. Then they need to peruse the list of clubs and activities students populate covering every topic from Amnesty International to SAGA (Students Against Global Abuse), to tutoring, to various honor societies. They need to read the school's teen-written and run newspapers and literary magazines for more enlightenment on the lives of Real vs. Hollywood-inspired teenagers, and to chat with the school’s staff and faculty.

After they leave the school, they need to talk to the adolescent wait staff at their favorite restaurants, to the baggers at the grocery store, to the ticket sellers at the cinemas, to the girls who clean their offices, to the guys who wash their cars, or to any teens they encounter who make their lives a little bit easier. Many of these kids work 20-30 hours a week to help their families pay for rent, food, and other necessities as well as to save for college; not to pay for fancy cars, to party and to buy the latest fashions. The latter are gross misconceptions.

When I was still in the classroom, at the start of every period I’d let my eyes wander over each student right after the starting bell rang as I shook my head in awe. Behind their carefully constructed facades of boredom, hipness and insouciance dwelled young adults who were exhausted, scared, compassionate and courageous; who faced an ugly side of life that I truly couldn't even imagine. I mean who leaves school to work two jobs and to watch over younger siblings, just to stumble home at two AM to complete some homework, sleep for a very few hours, get to school on time every day and earn a 3.0 GPA? 

That was the life of one of girls I had the privilege to teach last year. And she was not alone in her struggle to juggle school, work and family matters. Classrooms everywhere are filled with students who survive similar lives. And that’s not to mention those adolescents whose personal and family lives endure serious health and economic issues, but who desperately depend on their school’s academic, extracurricular and social outlets to keep them putting on foot in front of the other every single day.

Could teens be irritating? Just ask my hair stylist, Theresa, who made my gray hair disappear for twenty years. Could teens make me gnash my teeth at yet another excuse for not having an assignment done? (My favorite was from the young man who said he didn’t have his homework because his house had been burglarized and the police took his essay for fingerprint evidence). Ask my dentist. Could teens make me wish that I had a magic spell to freeze their eyes into permanent eye roll positions even though my optometrist said this was not probable?

Yes, yes, and yes.

But could they make me laugh when I was so frustrated with life I wanted to crawl under my computer table? Or make me question my own thoughts? Did they challenge me to see life from their side of the desk? 

Yes, yes and yes.

Do they deserve our respect and admiration? They most assuredly do.