During the summer break, I have only been updating on my adventures when I have completed a book or attended a conference. There are other teachers who blog who have continued to update over the summer. I haven’t been keeping up with their blogs as often as I normally would, but a recent post on the Nerdy Book Club has been rolling around in my head this week. The post was The Expected/Unexpected Text or what I like to think of as predictable text.
I highly recommend reading the actual post, but what I want to focus on is the idea of knowing the end of a story before you start. The author uses the old Scooby Doo television series as a great example. Even before the episode has started, you already know what is going to happen:
You know it, too: there’s a mystery or something has been stolen; toss in a few red herrings to send the kids in different directions (making sure that Scooby and Shaggy are always teamed up); the kids catch the villain, often wearing a mask as disguise; as the police cart them away, they mutter something about “those meddling kids”; and they all celebrate with some Scooby snacks.
This is true of just about any book you read, too. My wife and I were discussing this earlier this week and I brought up the idea of the “twist ending” that was popularised by O. Henry. The whole concept was that the ending would not be what you expected. Except that you did expect there to be a twist because that is what O. Henry did as an author; there was never a story he wrote that ended the way you would have expected from another author, so even his twists were, in a way, expected.
I am currently reading The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen. This is the first book in the Ascension Trilogy. (I don’t think the other books are out yet.) The story is about a country ruled by a king who had two sons. One son had been lost at sea about four or five years earlier and was presumed dead. Someone in the royal court poisoned the king, the queen, and the crown prince, which meant the country was poised on the brink of civil war. One of the members of the court, a man by the name of Conner, has drafted a daring scheme to pass off an orphan that he has found as the prince who was lost at sea. To do this, he buys three orphans as indentured servants and brings them to his manor, where he plans to teach them all he knows about the lost prince, Jaron, in the course of two weeks. At the end of the two weeks, he will pick one of them to be the prince and, most likely, have the other two killed to protect the secret deception.
When I started reading this book, my first thought was that the narrator, who is one of the orphans selected, Sage, would turn out to be the lost prince, Jaron, after all. I had never read this book before, had never read any plot summaries, or even skimmed through to the end. It is just the way stories like this go. If you’ve ever seen the movie Anastasia or read the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, as just two examples, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
So why read the story if I already know the ending? (Disclaimer: I’m not actually done, but I am fairly confident that this is the ending, anyway.) Why read anything if we know how it ends? And, for that matter, why do we buy movies so we can watch them again and again and again?
The reason is that we don’t read a book, watch a movie, or listen to a song for its ending. We do it for the storytelling. Great books aren’t great because they have a great ending. They are great because the story is told in a great way. Case in point: One of my all-time favourite series is The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper. I have read these books dozens of times. But the story arc has one of the worst endings I have ever read in my life. I have my own mental ending that I came up with because I absolutely abhor the way Ms. Cooper chose to end her five-book story. I think my ending is better. But the way she tells the story, from page one of Over Sea, Under Stone to the last page of Silver on the Tree is still phenomenal, even if I think the last page itself is awful. Another example I can think of comes from cinema. Back in 1998, shortly after the movie Titanic came out, my little sister was getting ready to go see it in the theatres with two of her friends. They were about thirteen years old at the time and were excited to go. As they were finishing, my dad jokingly said, “Why are you going to see that movie? You know the boat sinks at the end!” One of my sister’s friends said angrily, “Oh, thanks a lot for ruining it for me! Now I’m not going enjoy it!” Family lore has it that she didn’t even go to the theatre, although I can’t verify that.
That doesn’t mean that I think we should give away the ending of a book every time we talk about it. As a teacher, I will ask my students to make predictions about the text as I do a read aloud or they write a reflection of what they read that day. I agree with the author of the Nerdy Book Club post that students need to learn to recognise patterns in storytelling. I don’t know if I am in such agreement with his conclusion, that recgonising patterns will allow them to break away from the predictability later. My freshman English teacher in high school once told our class that there are approximately six original stories in the world, and that every book can be broken down into one of them. I have no idea what the six are, but I understand that point: the fundamental plot of any given book is going to be something someone else has done before. And, more importantly, that is okay. Because the thing that makes great literature great is not the plot itself, it is how the plot is told.
I don’t think it comes as any surprise that I come from a family of readers. I’ve written before about my parents passing on their love of reading to me. I don’t know if I’ve written as much about how all of my siblings also received this love. My household was one where there were always bookshelves stuffed with books, where my brothers and I had piles of books in our shared bedrooms, and all of us were always reading. My brothers, sisters, parents, and I are always recommending books to each other. My sisters-in-law have also joined in on this. If I mention reading a book to someone in my family, it isn’t long before someone suggests either something else by the author or something similar. This is how, among other things, I have come to love the writings of John Grisham, Ayn Rand, Jodi Picoult, David & Leigh Eddings, Michael Crichton, C.S. Lewis, and many other authors.
A few years ago, one of my brothers, who loves fantasy and knows that I love fantasy as well, asked me if I had read Fablehaven by Brandon Mull. He highly recommended it, but I was in the middle of something or other and didn’t get around to it. Several months later, my wife and I were co-teaching a Sunday School class of 11-year-olds and found out that they were all reading Fablehaven. I decided to check it out.
Or tried to.
Every single copy at the library and within the library’s network had been either checked out or reserved. Every. Single. Copy.
So Fablehaven returned to the backburner as a book I’d get around to reading “one of these days.” (There is a long list of books on this backburner that I have never bothered to write down.)
A few weeks ago, I went to the library for the express purpose of finding a Babymouse book. I left with seventeen books. Including Fablehaven. I was shocked when I saw it on the shelf. It was never on the shelf! So even thought I had roughly 30 other books on my list of things to read this summer, I knew I had to grab it when I had the chance.
I finally started reading about a week and a half ago.
I cannot believe it took me so long to finally get around to it! I loved this book! I loved the characters, especially Kendra and Seth. I wanted to yell at Seth for being so impulsive and I wanted to berate Kendra for not being a better example for her brother. I wanted to have stern words with Grandpa Sorenson for not being more honest with his grandchildren.
Fablehaven is a private preserve for magical creatures, a sanctuary of sorts. Stan and Ruth Sorenson are the elderly caretakers and they are hoping to find new caretakers among their grandchildren. They’ve invited many of the grandchildren in the past to stay with them, but none fit the bill. Now it is Kendra and Seth’s turn. But neither of them know what it is they are getting into until they unwittingly drink some magic milk that opens their eyes to the wonders of Fablehaven.
Fablehaven is home to fairies, satyrs, naiads, ogres, trolls, goblins, witches, and all sorts of other creatures. (Kendra keeps hoping to see a unicorn, but she never does.) Kendra and Seth are given specific instructions to stay away from certain areas of the preserve, since it is home to many dangerous creatures.
But it isn’t under Midsummer’s Eve when things get really frightening. Grandpa Sorenson, along with his former-naiad-turned-mortal housekeeper Lena are abducted from the home after Seth breaks a rule and allows goblins to enter the house. After striking a deal with a witch who had been held captive in the woods, the children find themselves on a wild adventure, trying to stop the witch from freeing an evil demon determined to cast a permanent shadow over the preserve.
I am really looking forward to reading the other books in this series to find out what happens next at Fablehaven, refuge for magical creatures!
I’ve mentioned a few times since I started my summer reading posts that there were only two books out of the huge pile I had on my nightstand that my principal specifically requested I read over the summer. The first was The Power of Our Words, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The second was Teacher Effectiveness Training by Dr. Thomas Gordon. Both books were strongly recommended, but it was also made clear that it was not necessary to read every single word on every single page; rather, I was told I could skim and glean some of the more salient points from the text.
As a general rule, I don’t skim when I read. I like to read it all and make a complete judgement based on everything I have read. But T.E.T. is a book that I did not actually read all of. I didn’t really skim, either. Rather, I read key sections and then skipped around. I enjoyed what was presented and have definitely made some professional goals in regards to the Effectiveness Training model.
Last week I had the opportunity to work with the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute as one of more than three dozen adult volunteer staff members, which is the new name for the Illinois Teen Institute. (More on this at a later point when I have more time to process my dozen or so pages of notes.) As part of this leadership conference for teens, teachers, and community members, I was able to attend a variety of focus workshops. One of the workshops was entitled “Effectiveness Training for Genuine Leadership” and the description made reference to the Effectiveness Model. I figured it could not be just a fluke that the presenter was using those terms, and so I planned on attending. While helping her set up for her session I asked her about it and learned that, indeed, her workshop used the Effectiveness Training model that Dr. Gordan wrote about. There is actually a series of books and training workshops that have been done in addition to the Teacher one. There is also Parent Effectiveness Training and Effectiveness Training for Women, among others. I was able to take what I had read about in T.E.T. and synthesise it with what Cass VanDerMeer shared in her workshop to get a better idea of what Effectiveness Training is all about.
The first thing I have taken away from it is that it is hard. At least, it is hard to do it well. Effectiveness Training is all about removing judgments and labels from our language and focusing on behaviour or actions. Effectiveness is also about using I-messages that don’t blame or accuse others. And yet we label and blame all the time, often without even thinking about it! I was really glad to have been able to chat with a specialist in this, because she gave me a lot of great insights into what Effectiveness looks and sounds like and what it doesn’t. Effectiveness is also a means of helping individuals become assertive rather than aggressive. This last part was a main focus of the workshop, and it is the thing that I want to work on the most as an educator.
There are three ways that people can respond to a situation: passively, aggressively, or assertively. (Passive-aggressive is still aggressive, incidentally.) A passive person allows others to make the decisions for them. If you were to describe a situation in terms of winning or losing, a passive person is in a lose-win situation (the lose, the other wins.) An aggressive person is in a win-lose situation, in which others are hurt in order for him/her to “win” (i.e., get what he or she wants). An assertive person, on the other hand, is in a win-win situation. Both parties get what they want/need. Now, obviously, there will be times when a win-win doesn’t work, especially if one of the parties is intent on hurting a person. But as a general concept, it is possible for me to get what I want and others to get what they want without anyone being hurt. Even in compromise, assertiveness allows all parties to have their interests, desires, or needs to be valued. New teachers all too often swing back and forth between being passive (letting students make the rules) to aggressive (stamping out all opposition). I try hard to be assertive, which can also be thought of as authoritative, but I know that there have been times when I have not been successful. I hope to do better this coming year and will continue to read and reflect upon Dr. Gordon’s text as I do this.
Several months ago, I stumbled across a blog called the Nerdy Book Club. I read several posts, loved what they were doing, and volunteered to write a guest post. I was eventually contacted and did indeed write a post for them. While browsing, I found this video of co-author Colby Sharp, a third grade teacher, introducing his students to his classroom:
As he runs around the room telling his students how much he loves reading, he makes this statement: “I love Babymouse! Pink covers! You know what? REAL MEN read Babymouse!”
Well, all right then! I figured it was time to give it a shot. So I went to the library with the intention of getting a Babymouse book. I looked around, couldn’t find them, and asked the children’s librarian. It has been a long, long, long time since I have had to ask a librarian to help me find a book. I forgot what happens when you ask.
Instead of just pointing me in the right direction, she took me to the graphic novel section. I happened to mention that I was interested in the books because I had been told that, as a fourth grade teacher, I should check them out. I ended up with 17 books by the time I left. More than a dozen Babymouse books, several Lunch Lady books, Fang-Bone, and the first in the Fablehaven series. I got home and told my wife that I may have a problem and may be in need of an intervention. (Interesting aside: My baby sister brings her best friend with her to the library to act as both designated driver and the person who will cut her off when she’s had too many books to read. Seriously.)
So. Babymouse. I haven’t read all of them yet, only five. But I wanted to get a post about them out before school starts (less than three weeks!!!!), especially since I have other books I want to write about, too.
I like Babymouse. I like the characters, I like the stories, I like the illustrations, and I like the concept. The books are easy reads for me (I can read an entire volume in less than an hour), but they all have a great message about being yourself, being a true friend, and not letting others change you. I can see why Colby loves Babymouse. I don’t know if I love Babymouse, but I definitely see the appeal, and I am glad that I finally got around to reading them. Graphic novels are a growing trend in our nation, especially young people. They aren’t at all like the manga series that have come out of Japan, but that’s okay. I will definitely get around to reading the rest of the series, although I may not blog about them again. I definitely recommend checking them out!
Classroom teachers, especially in the primary grades, will tell you that there are three ways to read a book: read the pictures, read the words, and retell the story. Most of the books I read are text-heavy and picture-light. I’ve been reading books like this for a very long time now. But I happen to enjoy picture books, too, and I especially enjoy wordless picture books because they force me to think about what the story could be.
One of the books I selected for my summer reading this year is another one that, I believe, I acquired during a new teacher mentoring workshop I attended. The book is called Classroom Management in Photographs and is published by Scholastic. Unlike most of the books that I am reading this summer, I did not have to measure the amount of time it took me to read this in months, weeks, or even days. In fact, I was able to read it in just a few moments. That is probably one of the great advantages of reading a book that is mostly pictures. Scholastic, in addition to being one of the principal mass-merchandisers for children’s literature, publishes a variety of resources for teachers. This is one of those resources, which they helpfully categorised under Teaching Strategies for grades K-5.
I think most of the ideas in this book are more appropriate for younger grades, but I found some helpful strategies nonetheless. It focuses on classroom management but does so in terms of the learning environment rather than systems of expectations, rules, and/or consequences. The principal idea is that the physical arrangement of a room can and does have a huge impact on student behaviour. I agree. One of my great challenges this past year, and almost certainly this coming year, was that I have a smaller classroom. I have been in rooms much larger, but I have also been in rooms much smaller. But just like my students hear all the time, you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. My challenge is figuring out how best to use the space I have.
One thing that struck me as I read was that every single one of the 20 classrooms featured used table groupings instead of individual desks. I like the idea of groupings in general, but I learned last year that sometimes the traditional array of rows and columns of desks may be what is best for a specific class. What I really want to do with my class this coming year is teach them how to effectively transition from one desk arrangement to another. Of course, I need to keep in mind accommodations for students who do not deal well with transitions, but I think there is a way it can be done. And if it doesn’t work, well, that just provides for another opportunity to live and learn. However, I continue to believe that students really will rise to the level of expectations we have for them!
One of the really simple ideas I saw in this book was something that several of the primary teachers in my building already do. It is to make a simple “where are we?” sign to hang outside the classroom. With so many students who leave for a variety of reasons, and with so many visitors who come to the room, it would be good to have a visual indicator for where we’ve gone. The idea in Classroom Mangement in Photographs is to make a circle with an arrow that can point to where the class has gone, such as to music, lunch, recess, assembly, gym, field trips, etc. I will make my with two arrows, one for the class and one for me. That way if my class is in music and I am in another teacher’s room, I can indicate both.
The other section I tagged in this book was for classroom jobs. I had fully intended on having classroom jobs last year, and somehow they just never happened. There were just so many other things that were of higher priority! There were a variety of ideas presented. Some teachers create enough jobs for everyone in the class to have something to do. Other teachers have a handful of jobs and then rotate students through them. One of my favourite ideas was the Job Application. Students actually apply for a job by filling out an application and sharing previous experience, related experiences, why they are interested, why they should be selected, and any other jobs they may be interested in. I love the real-life application of the, well, application!
This was a quick read and will be an easy reference for me to use in the future. I would definitely recommend it to anyone and will gladly lend it out to any teachers or parents who would like to check it out!
It has been a while since I did a summer reading post. That isn’t because I haven’t been reading (I have). It is because I am reading too many books at once and am therefore taking longer to finish them. Exhibits A and B are two of the books that my principal asked me to read this summer, The Power of Words and Teacher Effectiveness Training. I am using Post-It Notes to jot down my ideas as I read them and am working through them. But I also have books I read just before I go to bed, which is not a good time to be jotting down ideas, and books I read while traveling (also not a good time to jot down ideas that I will be able to read again). I am expecting to finish both of these books by the end of the week, though, which means I should have a flurry of summer reading posts over the next week or so.
Anyway, I did just finish reading another one of the books from my large pile that has actually grown larger since summer started. The New Teacher Book, published by Rethinking Schools, is a collection of essays, interviews, and reflections written by new teachers, veteran teachers, and even a couple of parents. I acquired this book at one of my new teacher mentoring workshops this past year and was looking forward to seeing what kind of advice it had to offer for new teachers.
Before getting into the book itself, I feel like I should take some time to explain what Rethinking Schools is. Rethinking Schools started as a small group of teachers in and around Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the mid-1980s who decided it was time for teachers to take a greater role in affecting education policy. They are grounded in a desire to teach for social justice (yeah, I know, that is becoming a very weighted word that brings up a lot of different ideas to a lot of different people) and an effort to see schools become laboratories for providing students with real access to the tools they need to reshape the world into a place that promotes equity, peace, and fairness. A big emphasis of their work goes toward urban schools and battling the injustices related to race and ethnicity.
While I agree with their basic goals, I don’t always agree with their methodology. I think that there are some times that the way we try to correct a problem actually makes it a bigger problem than before. We sometimes swing the pendulum from one side to the other and forget that our goal was to move it toward the middle. So while I have disagreements with some of their activities, I applaud their desire to do something, to make a change, to try to improve. And I applaud the risks that they are willing to take. As I was just telling a student I am tutoring the other day, the only way we learn is by making mistakes and trying to not make them again.
So what of The New Teacher Book? While I found it useful at points, I was actually disappointed by it. I felt like the entire book was telling me that my first years of teaching would be filled with uncooperative colleagues, unkind administrators, unhelpful parents, and that I would feel myself all alone with no support from anyone around me. My first year of teaching was nothing like that. I have a great group of colleagues in my building, my principal and my district administrators are incredibly supportive of me and of my professional growth, the parents I worked with this past year were incredibly helpful and encouraging, and I generally felt that I was surrounded by people who take the educational profession seriously. Now, I realise that not all schools are the same, nor are all districts, and I have no doubt that there are places where the support system is lacking. This was actually a fairly big topic of conversation during the INTC conference I attended a couple of weeks ago. Still, I kept reading The New Teacher Book hoping that I would find some good advice on being a new teacher in a district that does support new teachers.
Alas, it was not to be.
That isn’t to say that I found the book without its uses. There were some pretty cool ideas shared on ways to better collaborate with colleagues, including one that was so simple I could hardly believe I had not thought of it: use document sharing software, such as Google Docs, to keep track of students who are working with support staff. For example, if I know I am going to be teaching a unit on animal habitats, I can jot that down and my Title I reading teacher can refer to it as she makes plans for what to do with my students. This is a much more efficient way to record information than trying to catch each other before school or during lunch and then trying to remember what was said. Or if I am going to collaborate with a younger grade level for reading buddies, my co-teacher and I can make a document with the pairings and then jot down notes on what we see going on which we can compare later. (I am definitely going to use Google Docs for collaboration this coming year!)
There was also a somewhat useful section on classroom management that has given me some ideas to try out this coming year as I work on improving in this area of my responsibilities. While I feel that some of the suggestions were still too much on the side of assertive discipline which, along with my principal, I tend to shy away from, I think that there are ways I can modify them to make them more student-focused.
I would probably not recommend this book to a teacher in my building, but I would recommend it to someone who is struggling to find the necessary supports in order to be successful during their first years of teaching. And The New Teacher Book will continue to stay on my bookshelf with my other professional texts, if for no other reason than to remind me that teaching does have its struggles and sometimes I will need to look elsewhere for a support system as I learn and grow.
Yesterday was a good day at the INTC Beginning Teachers’ Conference. Today was even better.
The last day of the conference started with a phenomenal keynote address delivered by Manuel V. Scott, who, among many other things, was one of the original members of Erin Gruwell’s Freedom Writers. Yes, that Erin Gruwell. Yes, those Freedom Writers. Manuel’s story was even featured in the film. The character portraying him was Marcus, played by Jason Finn. (Manuel has informed me that Marcus is a composite character loosely based on himself and another student.) Marcus, in the film, is my favourite, entirely because of this scene:
(Sorry, the clip actually starts after the scene really starts. Marcus is the one who walked Miep Gies into the library before she starts talking to the students.)
Anyway, Manuel shared some great points with us about the impact that a teacher can have one a student. One of his key messages, though, was that we usually don’t know about the impact. Students are influenced for good by their teachers, but so very rarely do they go back and let their teachers know about this. Manuel was a high school drop-out who returned to school after a complete stranger spoke with him one night and said to him, “Son, just because you live in the ‘hood, the doesn’t mean the ‘hood has to live in you.” He decided to return to school and went from flunking all of his classes (he got a D in physical education, even) to passing all of them with A’s and B’s. After graduating high school, he went to college, earned two degrees, went to grad school, and is now finishing up his PhD. A young man who had dropped out of school after his freshman year, Manuel V. Scott is now a doctoral student, married for ten years with three wonderful children.
And he credits it all to the fact that his high school English teacher pushed him to rise above and beyond the expectations the world had for him. He told us about Erin Gruwell and what she did with her class. He said that there were days that she was worn out. Day after day she tried to teach, but nothing seemed to work. But what she never did was give up. She kept coming back and she kept trying. He let us in on a little secret: Erin Gruwell hates rap music. But she knew that her students loved it. So what did she do? She learned rap music so that she could use it to teach. This made me realise that, as much as I personally dislike SpongeBob SquarePants, I need to be willing to watch it because, you know, my kids all seem to love that show!
I have been reflecting on how I want to use writing in my classroom this coming year, and I re-read The Freedom Writers Diary in an effort to get some ideas. I’m glad that Manuel was there today to share with us why Erin Gruwell had her students write. She told them that they needed to put down their weapons, whatever they were, and pick up their pens; they needed to learn to make their voices heard through their writing and that they could change the world if they did so. The young men and women in Manuel’s classes chose to go forward because, quite honestly, they couldn’t go back–there was no “back” to go to! As a teacher, I need to give my students a place to go as they move forward.
One final comment about Manuel’s keynote. He shared with us this funny-but-true exchange he had one day: He had been talking about the old adage that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Just as he shared that, a man stood up, wearing a cowboy hat and boots and said, “Sir, excuse me, I hate to interrupt but I just need to tell you this: it is true that you can lead a horse to water but can’t make him drink, but you sure as [blank] can slap some salt in his mouth and make him thirsty!”
How profoundly true! Are my students thirsty when they enter my classroom? If not, it is my job to slap some salt in their mouths and make them thirsty! Give them the desire to learn! Meet them on their level and show them how the work we are doing is relevant to them!
The rest of the conference was spent in breakout sessions and workshops, but I really wanted to focus on Manuel’s comments. I have a copy of his book, Take Matters into Your own Hands: Dream Now! and was happy to get a chance to get it signed. (I wish I had had enough foresight to bring my signed copy of The Freedom Writers Diary so I could have had him sign that, too!) We chatted briefly, and now we are following one another on Twitter.
(And Manuel, if you happen to read this and see any glaring errors, please let me know!)
Astute readers of my blog who have been following my posts for some time now may recognise the title of this post and find themselves wondering if I’ve made some sort of error. “After all,” I am sure they are thinking, “didn’t he write a post about the INTC Conference – Day One several months ago?”
Well, yes, I did. And congratulations for having such a keen sense of observation! For those who may not remember, I had the opportunity to attend a two-day conference sponsored by the Illinois New Teacher Collaborative in February. And since I tend to make my blog post titles fairly self-explanatory, they were cleverly entitled “INTC Conference – Day One” and “INTC Conference – Day Two.” At the end of the winter conference, I heard about a summer conference that would be held in Champaign, Illinois, for beginning teachers who were preparing to enter the second year of teaching. I immediately thought, “Hey! I live in Champaign! And I am going to be entering my second year of teaching! I should totally register!”
So I did.
Which is why I am now writing about the first day of the INTC Beginning Teachers’ Conference. And since WordPress uses dates as part of the permalink for posts, I figured I may as well use the same title as before.
This is a shorter conference than the one I attended in the winter, but so far it has been quite worthwhile. I was asked to be a facilitator for my grade-level breakout sessions, along with three other intermediate grade teachers from around the state. We are all beginning teachers, and the only reason we were asked to be facilitators is because we checked a box on the conference registration form indicating an interest in doing so. Today’s session focused on getting to know the 15-20 intermediate teachers who were attending, and sharing what we like about our schools and what we would change about them (if it were in our power to do so). We had lively conversations and learned that there is a wide range of teaching environments within our state.
Before the conference even started, though, I was one of four teachers asked to participate in a primary/intermediate-level teachers focus group session to share our observations about our experiences during the first year. Our comments were recorded so that they can be used in research. (The INTC is a research initiative sponsored by the University of Illinois.) We were asked specifically about our most positive experiences this past year, our biggest frustrations, professional development, and how we felt our teacher preparation programs actually prepared us for teaching. It was an interesting experience and I hope to see the research that grows out of it!
Anyway, after our breakout session this afternoon, I attended two workshops. The first workshop focused on a more practical side of teaching: learning how to use Foldables (TM) in the classroom. I got some great ideas and I am looking forward to using them with my class this coming year. I learned how to make tab books and flip books, and I was shown an awesome resource by Dinah Zike (the teacher who actually came up with the terms “hamburger fold” and “hot dog fold”) that I will probably be acquiring next year (unless I find out another teacher in my building already has them). One is the “Big Book of Science” and the other is the “Big Book of Math.”
The second workshop was also practical, but it was more of the administrative side of teaching: using standards-based assessment. One of the key take-aways from this session was this quote: “If you don’t have standards-based assessment, then you really don’t have standards-based education” (Ken O’Connor, paraphrased). I am in a district that does have standards-based assessment, but it was interesting to compare what we use to assess with what other districts use. Most important, to me, was the ongoing debate on whether or not a student can be said to be “approaching” or “making progress” toward a standard by the end of the year. Our district currently says that students in the fourth quarter must either be recorded as “exceeding,” “meeting” or “not meeting” a standard. The end of the year is D-Day for students: they are either doing it or not. Other districts will indicate that a student is almost there but not quite. It was an interesting discussion, for sure, with evidence to support both sides of the argument!
The day ended with a reception in the conference center. I didn’t stay for long, but I did get to chat with the director of the INTC, Dr. Chris Higgins, as well as the assistant director, Nancy Johnson. Dr. Higgins was very personable and seemed keenly interested in how I have felt about the conference thus far. He also asked me about my future goals in teaching and education, and I let him know that I am debating what program I should enter for my master’s degree. He, as an educational philosopher (philosopher of education?) put in a plug for his program and, actually, I am quite interested. Enough so that I will start researching it more once I’ve determined if I can have student teachers in my room for observations or student teaching. (The university grants tuition and fee waivers for teachers who let university students observe or teach, and I am all about getting TFWs instead going deeper into debt for my education!)
I am looking forward to tomorrow and spending more time with my fellow beginning teachers as we prepare for the next stage of our careers: Year Two!
A friend recently posted a video clip of Dead Poets Society on my Facebook wall, which led to a discussion of different movies that feature great teachers. I have had a mental list of these movies going on in my head for some time, but this was the first time I ever got around to writing them down. Other friends chimed in and shared some of their favourites.
As I thought about this, I realised that I’ve spent a lot of time sharing my love of reading. But I also love movies. The local public library allows patrons to check out unlimited items, including DVDs, and lets you renew them twice, meaning you can keep them for three weeks. My wife and I used to take advantage of this by making regular trips to the library, checking out 21 DVDs, and then returning them after three weeks and getting another batch. (Yes, I know, we used our library more for movies than we did books; remember, we have nearly 2,000 books in our home already!) So I thought I’d share some of my favourite movies about teachers and or teaching today.
Let me know what you think about this list and whether or not you have any entries you would like to add. If you hate a movie, that is in your right to do so. Just as you won’t love everything you read, I don’t expect you to love everything you watch. And just because I love a movie and you hate it, doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends. Remember, these movies are about teachers and/or teaching, and the reasons they are on the list is because of the message they share about education. Some focus on sports, some on religion, some of urban classrooms, some on teaching in other countries. I think each has a worthwhile message to share about teaching, though. One final thought: some of these movies are rated R due to the coarse language or other content that is not appropriate for children.
Oh, and a disclaimer: I have not seen all of these movies. (more…)
[NOTE: This was a guest post I wrote for the Nerdy Book Club. I am sharing it here, but I would encourage all to go check out the other posts by my fellow Nerdy Book Clubbers!]
When it comes to writing a blog post, I can usually sit down and start typing and the words just flow. I’ve long been comfortable expressing myself through writing, and often feel that I can do so better than through speaking. Of course, as an educator, that’s just not an acceptable choice. Don’t get me wrong; I am quite comfortable expressing myself through speaking! (My wife will tell you that I probably talk too much, in fact!) That’s why it surprises me when I prepare to write a post and then I just blank. What to write about? What to say? How to say it?
Do my students feel the same way about writing? I can only imagine they do! But this post isn’t supposed to be about writing; it is supposed to be about reading. Now, sure, I tell my students all the time that reading and writing are both aspects of the same process, and yes, it is true that good readers are good writers and vice versa, but it is also true that the aspects can be separated from time to time. And, if I am to be honest with myself, I was a reader long before I was a writer.
I still remember the first book I ever read completely on my own. It was Danny and the Dinosaur by Syd Hoff. Before reading this wonderful treasure of a story, I relied upon my mother’s assistance. She taught me how to read using an old copy of McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader for Young Children. Once I completed the lessons and read about Danny and his wonderful dinosaur, I was off and running! I seriously doubt that a single day has gone by since that day some 24 or 25 years ago that I have not taken time to read on my own and for myself. I almost always have a book or two with me that I am reading, which is one of the many reasons I tend to carry a bag around with me wherever I go. In middle school and high school, this was a backpack. Sometime during college I upgraded to a messenger bag (which my family and friends called my man-purse). And if I don’t have a bag with me, there is still a book nearby!
I have always been one of those people who can’t keep quiet about a good book. I read them and then I find others and make them read the books, too, so we can talk about them! My baby sister, who is 11 years younger than me, was a frequent target of my insistence that she read a book. One of my favourite book series is The Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. I told my sister for =years that she should read these books and promised her she’d love them. She resisted because, like many in my family, she is stubborn. Then one day when I was in college she finally borrowed my worn and battered copies that I’d had since fourth grade and started reading. She called me up the next day and said, “Why didn’t you make me read these books earlier?! These are amazing!” I simply replied, “I told you so! Now, next time I recommend a book, are you going to resist?” She meekly replied, “No.” She is now in college herself, but that hasn’t stopped her from calling me up and asking me to recommend a good book. And I call her and ask her for recommendations, too. In fact, she is one of my main sources for selecting new books for my classroom library.
When I was growing up, my living room was full of bookcases stuffed with books. As I grew older, I started my own book collection that soon spread onto several bookcases. As an adult, my living room is my library. My wife and I have lined the walls with bookcases, stuffed the shelves with books (last tally was 1,894 books, but that has already increased), and we have two comfortable chairs nearby where we can quietly read and share our books with each other. And my baby sister, who at first refused to read the books I suggested? She now has her own library at home including, of course, The Dark Is Rising sequence that I got her for Christmas after she kept trying to steal my set.
I decided last summer to blog from time to time about the books I had been reading. For those who don’t know, either because you didn’t read the posts or you just didn’t know about it, I’d decided to read the entire Jack Ryan/John Clark series by Tom Clancy. In chronological order. It took me an incredibly long time. I enjoyed the stories, but when I was done, oh boy was I ever done!
This summer I hope my reading will be more varied. I have a huge stack of books that I have committed to read this summer. They are piled up next to my nightstand. Most of them are professional books that I want to read for myself because I consider myself a professional and, as a professional, I have a deep desire to improve in my craft. There are also a few works of fiction that I plan on reading this summer, especially before I go to bed each night. You see, I read myself to sleep most nights, and I since I am trying to take notes on my professional reading, I don’t think it’d work too well to read those books before I go to bed. And, on the very bottom, I have Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, which I started over a year ago but would like to actually finish.
There are also a few works of fiction that I plan on reading this summer, especially before I go to bed each night. You see, I read myself to sleep most nights, and I since I am trying to take notes on my professional reading, I don’t think it’d work too well to read those books before I go to bed. Which is why I have recently finished reading The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.
I have a confession to make: I’ve been following Mr. Gaiman on Twitter for some time, I greatly admire him for his devotion to writing and also for his willingness to support independent projects, but I had only read one of his books before, and that was Coraline. (A huge shout-out to my brother Abram who introduced me to Mr. Gaiman by giving me this book for Christmas a few years ago!)
I have been trying to build up my library of Newbery books, both the honor books and the winners, and so when I saw The Graveyard Book at Barnes & Noble one day, I knew I just had to grab it.
Even though I knew nothing about it except that it was a Newbery winner and that it was written by Neil Gaiman.
I started reading and found it was one of those books that I could hardly put down. I read late into the night until I fell asleep with the book on my face and then read first thing in the morning until I had to get out of bed to go for my morning walk. The story itself is a fantastic concept: a young boy is orphaned and adopted by the ghosts in a neighbourhood cemetery. The ghosts decide to name him Nobody Owens, and call him Bod. A local vampire, who has made the cemetery his permanent home when not traveling, becomes the boy’s guardian. (The book never actually tells you that Silas is a vampire, but it is alluded to in several places.) Bod is tutored by Silas, several deceased teachers, and a hell-hound named Ms. Lupesco. Of course, everyone in the graveyard helps to raise the boy and they never resist the opportunity to share stories from their own lives. I don’t want to say much more about the book itself, other than to say it is definitely well worth reading!
If this sounds vaguely similar to The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, that’s because it is. Instead of Mowgli being raised by animals in the jungle, we have Nobody being raised by ghosts in the graveyard. Neil Gaiman was greatly influence by Kipling as a child, and when he first had the idea for The Graveyard Book he wanted to write it in a similar style to Kipling: a series of short stories that were separate but still connected. He doesn’t quite accomplish that, but what he did accomplish was to write a wonderful story that is truly great literature. The copy I purchased includes a transcript of the acceptance speech that Mr. Gaiman gave when his book won the ALA Newbery Award for children’s literature. He discussed the process of writing the story and the experiences from his own life that went into it. Near the end, he shared something that I found profoundly simple: “I wrote it as best I could. That’s the only way I know how to write something. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good. It just means you try. And, most of all, I wrote the story that I wanted to read.”
I am going to use this speech as an introduction to writing in my class next year. There is also a video on YouTube that was shared by one of my wonderful colleagues that shares Mr. Gaiman’s advice to young authors: Go out, live life, experience happiness and heartbreak, and then come back and write about it!
I had the opportunity to attend a summer workshop this morning. It was a put on by my building’s awesome art teacher and one of the district social workers, who is a licensed art therapist. The focus of the workshop was on engaging students with portraiture photography. It was pretty interesting and gave me some great ideas for ways I can take advantage of our fine arts teachers’ infusion time, which is time they can come into the classroom and help with integrated lessons.
The best part of the workshop, of course, was playing around with costumes and taking portrait photographs. We were put into two teams of four, with each team member given a task: model, photographer, lighting assistant, or costume assistant. Every 5-10 minutes we rotated tasks, so everyone got a chance to do everything.
I was the first to model, and my costume was a metal army helmet from World War I or II (I don’t know which, or even if there was a difference), a black face mask (think Zorro or the Man in Black), and an adhesive mustache that curled up at the ends (think of any stereotypical villain from any cartoon from the 60s, 70s, or 80s). The lighting selected was an orange tint. I think the results were quite fabulous. After loading the pictures onto computers, we got to play around with editing them using iPhoto (which, because our district uses Apple computers, is standard on every computer in the district). Here are some of the highlights:
The first pose, I simply crossed my arms and looked vaguely towards the camera. Not wearing my glasses, I actually had no idea where I was looking. Also, the mask was a bit high, so my eyes are cut off. Again, no glasses means a nearly-blind Mr. Valencic.
This is a three-quarter view shot. You can see both of my eyes (even better since the mask was adjusted!), and one of my ears. I love that my hair is sticking out from under the metal helmet!
This was my first profile shot, and I really liked how it turned out! So, of course, I had to play around with the editing features on iPhoto. The results, below, are what I came up with. By the way, I had never used iPhoto before, and I am certainly not a visual artist. But a friend who does portrait photography said she liked it, so I guess there’s that!
I definitely want to use this strategy in my classroom next year! My goal will be to have students take pictures and then write a story using the pictures to guide them. Because they will be the subjects of the photos, they can write either a fictional narrative or a personal experience. Of course, I’d have them use different costumes to help move the story along!
Today I spent most of my morning and part of the afternoon finishing work on cleaning up my classroom. But last night I started thinking about summer reading, not for me, but for my readers. Obviously, you have a lot of things you’ll be doing, but I hope you will take time to read over the summer, and not just books.
I love blogs. That’s why I chose to start blogging in the first place! I don’t know if you’ve ever looked, but I have a huge list of blogs on my sidebar that I enjoy reading on a regular basis. Several of them are just fun and/or interesting blogs, like Cakewrecks, The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation “Marks”, Hyperbole and a Half, and EPBOT. But there are also a lot of others that are teachers’ blogs. I love reading what my colleagues around the nation are up to and what they are teaching. So here’s my summer reading challenge for you:
Explore the other blogs then come back and tell me what you think. Also, feel free to recommend blogs to me! I currently have 92 blogs that I try to keep up with, but I always have room for more! (Most of them are friends’ and family members’ blogs that get updated once a month or less.) Let the summer reading begin!
Some of my more avid readers with excellent memory may remember an early Teaching Fourth post about benchmarks. If you don’t, no worries; if you are really interested, I provided a link. Because I’m just that awesome. Or so the pictures and letters some students in Mahomet made for me about seven months ago claim. (And yes, the image in that post is my phone’s lockscreen wallpaper. I like the reminder.)
Today was round two of the benchmark testing for mathematics. I haven’t yet had a chance to look over the answers or put them in the computer because I had an inquiry group meeting followed by a new teacher induction meeting that took up my afternoon, and then a Webelos den meeting followed by catching the end of an Eagle Scout Court of Honor that took up my evening. Somewhere in there I had time to see my wife and watch part of an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. (My wife is the one really watching; I was just sitting on the couch with her at the time. However, I do prefer it to Hercules: The Legendary Journey, neither is a particular favourite. Even if I did watch both series with some regularity over the summers when I was in high school. I can thank my friend Chris for that. Well, and the fact that we were incredibly bored. But I digress considerably.)
In addition to helping me monitor my students’ progress, these benchmark assessments also help me form a broad picture of where my students’ understanding is. I use the information to guide my instruction, but I don’t use it to determine it. I like assessments that serve as one of many tools in evaluating and analysing what is going on in the room, and I feel quite fortunate to work in a district that recognises that assessments really are just that: tools.
There is something else I learn from administering standardised benchmark assessments: I learn which students will loudly complain whenever they hear the word “test” and which students will celebrate. I guess I still need to work on getting the boys and girls in my class to change how they think about tests. I don’t want a test to be something scary that leads to anxiety and fears about grades. I want a test to be something that simply gives an idea of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going next. It is a way to prepare us for the future by looking over the past and determining our present. That may be a bit too lofty of a dream for now, though. After all, tests have been the be-all and end-all of education for a very long time. But, as Lady Sarah Ashley says in the movie Australia, “Just because it is, doesn’t mean it should be.”
Welcome to my new blogging home! If you are a first-time visitor, I hope you’ll take time to read my about pages to learn more about me and my journey in education. If you are someone who had been following my adventures in substituting and can’t get enough of my stories, I’m glad you can! And if you are somehow a repeat visitor to this site who hasn’t visited my other one… well, congratulations on finding my blog before I had announced it!
So, my adventures have already begun! They started as soon as I got a phone call last Tuesday extending the invitation to work at Wiley Elementary and have been going non-stop since. After spending the day telling people about my new job, I went to bed early, took my wife to work the next day, and spent a good part of Wednesday staring at my my new classroom, trying to figure out what to do first. By way of reference, this is what I found when I visited my room for the first time:
Doesn’t look too bad, right? Well, other than the fact that the desks are all in group in the middle with no space around them, but that’s to be expected. Okay, let’s take a closer look at what I had waiting for me! Let’s start with the TV cart:
A nice large television, a combo VCR/DVD player, a large flatbed scanner, and some stuff on the bottom. All useful, although the scanner definitely belongs elsewhere!
Okay, so the scanner is old and uses a massive plug to connect. I’m happy to have it, though!
I gotta admit it: I have no idea what to do with this old-style filmstrip projector, or even how to use it. I’m guessing it will not be staying in my room… but then again, maybe it will. (Along with the portable screen there on the left.)
Then there are the boxes…
And more boxes…
Fortunately, I have lots of shelf space in my room, but I haven’t taken any good pictures to show just how many shelves I have.
Other things I discovered included a pitchfork…
… and a giant mirror, used once-upon-a-time for observations:
I have to figure out a way to cover up the mirror, though, since it is apparently quite the source of distraction for fourth graders. I am thinking of acquiring a large sheet of corkboard and turning it in a large bulletin board.
After spending a lot of time just staring at the room and trying to figure out what to do first, I decided to tackle the desks. I am planning for 30 students, so I initially tried an arrangement of six groups of five. However, after Gretchen arrived and looked it over, we decided that the desks were too crowded, and she helped me switch them to four long rows. I currently have an aisle in the middle, but I may close it up to give more space in the room for a reading center and a table. All of that took up most of my day, so I left the boxes for later.
I came back on Thursday and unpacked the boxes. They contained all of my classroom books. After pulling them all out and sorting them, the room looked like a very well-organised mess:
Friday was spent putting all of the books away and sorting through the various non-textbook books I had, such as teachers’ editions, supplements, binders of miscellaneous stuff, and old curriculum guides. Oh, in the foreground of the above picture you should be able to see a large stack of papers on top of the green thing. Those papers are an inventory of the Wiley classroom supplies from 1989! I showed it to my principal and she just laughed. Teachers keep the strangest things.
I had hoped to not go to the room over the weekend, but I still had more to do. After putting away all of the books that had come with the room, I started bringing over my boxes of teaching stuff that I’ve been collecting over the years. I also boxed up and carted over the 250 or so juvenile fiction books that I’ve had sitting in my living room for some time. Gretch and I still haven’t figured out what we are going to do with the additional space when half of my books are gone!
I still have a lot to do, but I am making progress. I am worried about how much I’ll be able to accomplish this week, though, since I have new teacher/new employee orientation most of the day from Monday through Thursday. I’ll be going over each evening, though, and I’m sure I’ll get it done before school starts on the 15th!
For the first time in a very long time, I find myself struggling with words. How do I start this? What do I say? How do I say it? I usually write in a kind of extemporaneous way, with a general idea fixed in my but nothing specifically planned. But all of my words seem to come out too cliche and unoriginal.
Many of you who come to read my blog are also friends on Facebook and/or followers on Twitter, or you may be one of my family members who actually reads this. So most of you know already. But I have a hunch that I have a few lurkers who are none of the above.
I guess I can take my advice from The Sound of Music and just start at the very beginning. Well, okay, not the very beginning, but close enough to the beginning for my purposes.
The past couple of weeks have been quite busy ones for me. I had several job interviews, I started a new job, then started another new job, quit the first, and kept preparing for interviews. I heard back from the first interview quite quickly and learned the position had been filled. I came out of the second interview feeling lackluster about it. I didn’t think I had presented myself very well. I was upset with myself because the latter job was very much the job I have been looking for. However, I have a policy of not writing off an interview until I hear back from the interviewer.
So imagine my surprise when I got a call on Monday morning asking if I would be willing to come in for a second interview the following day.
I thought about what I needed to do to prepare for a second interview and realised that I had no idea. You see, I’ve never had a second interview before. I’ve either been hired on the basis of a first interview or I’ve never been called back. I was told that the interview would be fairly informal, just the principal and myself and maybe another teacher. The principal made a point that I did not need to get “all dressed up” or wear a suit. So I donned my brown leather shoes, light brown slacks, blue dress shirt, and my awesome Utahraptor tie my baby sister got me for Christmas. It is one of my favourite ties, and I wanted to show the principal the kind of attire she could expect me to wear every day at work.
I arrived for the interview and was shown around the school, including the room would possibly be mine. We talked about classroom management, education philosophies, best practices, and other esoteric topics that fascinate me but probably bore those not deeply invested in the education profession. Then we returned to her office and continued our discussions. She told me about the goals of the school, including their efforts to become a fine arts and international studies building without becoming a fine arts or international studies program. I shared my experiences living in Australia and my networking with other teachers across the nation and in other countries. I also talked a little bit about my missionary work in California and how it related to my teaching.
After about an hour (during which the other teacher never arrived), the other candidate arrived, so we had to end our interview. And it was our interview. The principal wanted to know what I wanted from her and her school, since I was shopping for a school as much as she was shopping for a teacher. On my way out, I greeted the other candidate, who happened to be the student teacher I’d worked with at Stratton while subbing for the 4th grade (gifted) teacher. That was when I realised that I was one of only two candidates being considered for the job. I left feeling considerably better about how I presented myself and about the job in general.
It was at 11:13 am CDT that I got the phone call that has, in no uncertain terms, changed my life. After saying hello and exchanging the requisite “how are you” queries, I heard this words: “Alex, I would like to invite you to join our team here at Wiley, if you are interested.”
Holy freaking cow!
After well over 1,000 applications to posting in over 350 districts in the state of Illinois, not to mention the many applications sent across the nation last summer, I finally found my new home.
My new home isn’t even that far from my current home. Wiley Elementary School (home of the coyotes, as my oldest brother was so kind to find out and tell me) is located in Urbana, Illinois, which is home to one of the three districts to have utilised me as a substitute teacher last year. Admittedly, I was only in Urbana twice, and it wasn’t at Wiley, but it is still one of those districts to have had me on their lists. So in addition to the wonderful joy of having a full-time teaching position after three years of searching, I have a full-time teaching position in my own community of Champaign-Urbana!
While on the phone, I sent Gretch a message on Google Chat that said, and I quote: “EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE,” to which she responded, “ you ok dear?”
To be fair, she was at work, and may not have been fully aware of the sequence of events of the day. So when I got off the phone I called her and told her. Then I got the response I had expected: she squealed, told her coworkers, and said, “Oh my God… Oh my God… Oh my God! Honey, that’s great!” Ah, understatements, how I love thee!
I made Gretch promise not to say anything online until I had finished calling parents, which didn’t take me long. I called my mum, who didn’t answer, then my dad, who didn’t answer, then repeated until I got through to one then the other. I called Gretch’s mum, who was instrumental in me getting an interview, and then I let Gretch know that she could announce it to the world. I had already posted it on Facebook and Twitter, and, I’ll be honest: I have been shocked by the response! I knew a lot of people were waiting for such good news, but I didn’t realise how many there were! I’m not even sure if a positive pregnancy announcement (whenever that happens) will generate as much response!
Several more phone calls and emails were exchanged with my new principal. I will be attending new teacher orientation on Monday and Tuesday, and then new employee orientation on Tuesday afternoon. I am heading over to my building to see my room (MY ROOM!) and start unpacking. Tomorrow morning I will be going in to get keys and work more on the room.
Oh, and school starts in two weeks. No pressure there, right?
So now I think I’ll start a new blog (Adventures in Fourth Grade, perhaps) in a couple of weeks, unless I feel compelled to write sooner, which will almost certainly happen, and just import all of these posts to make sure they have a home. Of course, all new blog entries will be posted on the various social networking sites, and I hope you’ll continue to come by and see what kind of crazy adventures I’m having! Thank you, one and all, for your love and support. Best of luck to my fellow substitute teachers, wherever you may be and whatever paths you choose to take! I’ll continue to keep up with your blogs!
In the meantime, I am off to explore my building and figure out what the heck I’m supposed to do next! My next blog post will be from whatever my new blog will be called.
I am continuing on my quest to read the entirety of the Jack Ryan/John Clark canon as written by Tom Clancy, following the chronological order of the story. The most recently completed book is The Hunt for Red October, which is actually the first book Clancy wrote. I love the description of Clancy that appears at the end of the book:
He has had a private chat with the President of the United States who proclaimed himself to be an avid fan of The Hunt for Red October. He has lunched with the White House staff. His novel has been a top seller at the Pentagon. Yet the author in question is neither a former intelligence nor naval officer. Rather, Tom Clancy is an insurance broker from a small town in Maryland whose only previously published writing was a letter to the editor and a three-page article about the MX missile. Clancy always wanted to write a suspense novel, and a newspaper article about a mutiny on a Soviet frigate gave him the initial idea for Red October. He did extensive research about Soviet-American naval strategies and submarine technology. Then, in the time he could spare from his insurance business, Clancy sat down at his typewriter and wrote. The rest is history…
Red October was the first Clancy novel I read, after I attempted to read Clear and Present Danger and found it a bit too complicated. (This was when I was in 7th or 8th grade, I believe). After reading this one, though, I was hooked, and quickly sought out the other books. Today I own 9 of the 13 novels in the series and after reading Without Remorse (given to me by a friend who didn’t want to keep it), I decided to read the rest of the series. I love this book. It is everything a first-time suspense novel should be. Clancy doesn’t give away the end early in the story, even though he has ample opportunities to do so. The plot moves quickly but jumps around to keep the reader engaged and trying to keep track of everything that is happening. It isn’t Clancy’s best novel, to be sure, but it is still a great story.
It takes place in the midst of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. A Soviet submarine commander, Marko Ramius, has decided to go rogue and is attempting to steal a brand-new submarine and deliver it and himself to the United States. The Soviets learn about it and send its entire fleet after him in a search-and-destroy mission. At the same time, the US has learned about the attempted defection, and are sending their fleet out to bring him (and the sub) safely in.
The thing I find most interesting in the story is the description of the American response to the Soviet Union in general. As I mentioned in the comments of my previous summer reading post, Tom Clancy is clearly an American Exceptionalist who grew up in the turmoil of American-Soviet tensions. Everything he writes is pro-America, pro-American intelligence services, and pro-American military. I’m okay with this; I think it is impossible for an author to not write with a bias, and those who attempt to do so tend to write boring stories. At least, that has been my experience with the many thousands of books I have read. The author has to have a purpose in writing, and that purpose is his or her bias. Clancy’s purpose is to write a suspense story that shows why America is superior. Of course, he also throws in shout-outs to our allies, but it is still the Americans who win the day.
It would be interesting to read pro-Soviet fiction as a counterbalance to Clancy’s stories, but I don’t know if any such books exist. My only exposure to Russian literature has been a few attempts at Tolstoy, but I’ve never actually completed any of his books. I’ve also read most of Ayn Rand’s works, but hers are certainly not Russian lit. Maybe I’ll explore this train of thought later; for now, I am going to continue through my Clancy reading and then find something else.
I don’t know why I didn’t blog about my interview on Wednesday, nor do I know why I have put off blogging about today’s interview, but I guess I should do it to keep my running record of my professional life going. Because this is a bit over 1,400 words, I’m going to put a break in here, just to keep my home screen from being overwhelmed by this post.
In the process of completing hundreds of job applications, I have gotten used to seeing the same questions pop up time again. In fact, I have saved my responses to these questions so that I can copy-and-paste into my applications. (For those who may be concerned, this is actually encouraged!)
Today I saw a new question. It asked me to describe my views on leadership. My recent week at the Illinois Teen Institute, coupled with a discussion with my father-in-law about what leadership is (and what it is not) has prompted me to share my response with all of you. (In the meantime, I am delaying the writing of two book reviews and an interview report. I’ll get to it all eventually, I’m sure!) Anyway, here it is:
Leadership is taking a principled stand on an issue and inspiring others to join you in that stand. Leadership is walking beside those you would lead, and sometimes walking behind them. Leadership is setting a positive example by doing what you say and saying what you do. Leadership, more than anything, is a matter of being an example to others.
Leadership is not to be the person up front, the person in charge, or the person directing the actions of others, although these may occasionally be included in the roles of a leader. Nor is leadership a lonely position; one can be a leader among a group of leaders.
As an educator, my primary role as a leader is to provide students with the skills and knowledge they need to be leaders among their peers, within the school, and within the community. I do this by modeling positive leadership traits both within the classroom and without and encouraging my students to do the same.
[Note: This was originally posted on the blog that my wife and I share.]
As much as I would enjoy writing a post about The Hobbit, this is actually my annual post on my experiences at the Illinois Teen Institute just a couple of weeks ago. While some who read this blog are surely familiar with it, I am going to assume that there are at least a few visitors who may not know. So before I get into ITI 2011, let me give a brief recap:
The Illinois Teen Institute is a week-long leadership camp during the summer, sponsored by the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association (it has taken me many years, but I think I’ve finally gotten the name down pat). ITI was started in 1974 and has been going strong ever since, making it the longest-running Teen Institute in the nation.
As a Teen Institute, it is aimed at, well, teens. Students are able to attend as participants from the summer before their freshmen year of high school until the summer after they graduate. As a participant, teens are placed into two groups: First is a small discussion group of 8-12 teens and two staff members (depending on attendance numbers). The members of the discussion groups generally do not know one another before hand, and the purpose of the groups is to discuss the general sessions and workshops offered each day. The second group is a Community Action Team, and it is the heart and soul of the Illinois Teen Institute. Teens from the same area/school/community/etc work together to come up with a plan to improve their community, utilising the skills and information they have gained at the Institute. The CAT plan is conceived, planned, and carried out by teens, with adult sponsors or volunteer staff members present as resources. (As an aside, Operation Snowball, Inc. was the result of a community action plan from 1978, or thereabouts, that has become an international drug prevention program.)
As a leadership camp, ITI focuses on helping teens become better leaders in the schools, their communities, and in the state. It is also a “prevention first” program, meaning that students learn about ways to prevent risky behaviours, most notably alcohol, tobacco and other drug (ATOD) abuse, unhealthy relationships, bullying, etc. It is not a treatment, rehabilitation, or recovery program. The entire week is focused on the teens. The speakers and workshops are selected to provide meaningful information and useful skills.
I first attended ITI in 1999 as a participant. In 2000 and 2001 I was back again as a member of the Administrative Team (A-Team), which allowed me to attend free of charge as a teen staff member. As a member of the A-Team I did not have a discussion group, although I did participate with my Community Action Team. From 2002-2004 I was absent due to serving a mission in California, but I returned in 2005 as a member of the volunteer staff, working as a co-facilitator. This placed me with a discussion group and a CAT. I did this for two years before being selected as a PALS 1 Coordinator in 2007.
The PALS 1 program is designed for Peers with Advanced Leadership Skills who are coming back a second or third year to really focus on specific leadership skills. The program has changed somewhat over the years, but the main focus has always been to help those teens who are in positions of leadership be more effective leaders and to train to be leaders at ITI. (The PALS 2 program has been renamed Youth Staff and is just that: teens who have been through the program and are ready to practice what they’ve learned. They work with a volunteer staff member in leading discussion groups, working with action teams, and making sure the participants feel welcome and have a great week.)
I applied to be a PALS 1 Coordinator in 2008 but, due to a mix-up in contact information, I didn’t learn that I had been selected until the Friday evening after staff training had started. Gretch and I had just gotten married about 3-4 weeks earlier and I was scheduled to work that entire week. Whoops. I was disappointed, but it was probably for the best, since we were still trying to get settled and all.
After bringing Gretch to my high school’s Operation Snowball weekend in 2008 and 2009, I encouraged her to come to ITI, despite her complete lack of experience with the program. She applied as a volunteer staff member and was accepted as a co-facilitator. I returned as a PALS 1 Advisor (new name, same job) and we had a wonderful week together. We came back in 2010, volunteering for the same roles. During the 2010 camp, Gretch and I helped the girls in Headquarters (formerly known as the A-Team) with scheduling of workshops and other things, and I was encouraged to volunteer for HQ staff for the following year, which I did.
Which finally brings us up to ITI 2011. Due to Gretch’s work schedule, she was not able to attend ITI this year. So I went alone. This marked the longest period of time we have been separated since we started dating on 16 August 2007. However, frequent telephone calls during free time and occasional chats on Google helped us make it through the week. Besides, many of our ITI friends are married and also spend the week apart. So we knew we’d be okay. Everyone asked how Gretch was doing and where she was. It was great to know that so many people care.
In fact, this is the very reason that I find myself going there and back again year after year. I love the community of caring that exists at the Illinois Teen Institute. My first CAT advisor was Brian Weidner. He had been going to school at Bradley University in Peoria back in 1999. Today he and his wife live and work in Minnesota, but he comes back each year as a workshop presenter, and we also catch up. I consider my friends at ITI to be like a family, and I hope that they think the same of me (and Gretch). Two experiences from this year really capture this sense of family.
The first was a girl who was attending as a first-year participant. She arrived with her mom, but nobody else. She was alone, and she was scared. She wanted to leave. A few of us helped her through the first few hours and encouraged her to stay, sharing our own experiences. After listening to our first speaker, the Amazing Tei Street, she decided to stick around. I later learned that she called her mom that night and said how glad she was to be there. I saw her off and on during the week, and each time she had a big smile and was laughing with her peers. She came alone; she left with a network of friends and supporters.
The other is also about a girl, here for the first time. She came from another state. She is kind of quiet and seems the kind who keeps to herself. I don’t think anyone would look at her and think of her as someone who would be popular, or even someone who would hang out with the popular kids. On Tuesday evening, the teens participated in a talent show. This girl walked onto the stage and, without saying a word, put on her guitar and began to play the opening chords to Stairway to Heaven. When she finished, 300 people rose to their feet, cheering, clapping, and calling for an encore. Later on, she and one of the teen staff members, a young man who is a semi-professional musician, were jamming in a lounge area.
That, my friends, is why I keep coming back. It is because the world is not as bad as we are led to believe. There are good people doing good things. They say that the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow. The young men and women and the Illinois Teen Institute prove that wrong. The youth of today are the leaders of today. I am blessed to work with them and I know that I am a better person because of it.
As you are probably aware, I have applied for well over 1,000 jobs at more than 300 schools/districts/consortiums across Illinois. Nearly every one of the applications has been submitted using the AppliTrack system, which is an excellent bit of software that allows districts to collect and sort job applications online. Last year, I discovered k12jobspot.com, which is an aggregate site that culls all of the AppliTrack sites in the nation and puts them in one place. This has made it incredibly easy for me to apply for jobs, particularly since I can import applications and thus skip the tedious task of filling out all of the information each time.
The vast majority of job postings in Illinois are grouped near Cook and Lake counties, which are essentially what is known as Chicagoland–all of the districts in the greater Chicago area that are not part of Chicago Public Schools (they are a separate entity from the rest of the state). Alas, this also means that everyone wants to work there. For example, I applied for one opening in the North Ridge area. I received an email that informed me that, regrettably, I was not selected among the more than 1,000 applicants.
But I’ve continued to apply for every self-contained, general education (SCGE) teaching position I could find from 2nd to 6th grade (I don’t really want to teach kindergarten or 1st grade and few schools have SCGE classes after 6th grade). Which is why I applied for a couple jobs in Matteson School District 162 on June 16 and again on July 1. According to my records, I applied for a 5th grade opening and a 6th grade opening.
Two days ago, on Sunday (July 10) I received an email informing me I had been selected to interview for a 4th grade teaching position at Sauk Elementary School in the Matteson district. I was informed that the principal would be conducting interviews today (the 12th) from 8 am to 1 pm and to contact him to schedule a time. I wasn’t at all concerned that I hadn’t actually applied for a 4th grade position, mostly because I had indicated an interest in any intermediate position available. So something about my application caught his attention.
At the same time, I was already scheduled to substitute for one of Champaign’s high school summer school classes on Tuesday. (More on this later.) I determined that it would take me approximately two hours to drive to Ricthon Park from Champaign, and I didn’t want to pass up one more subbing opportunity. So I did what any sane, rational, job-seeking person would do:
I asked that he schedule my interview for the first time slot.
So I woke up this morning around 5 am, ate, dressed, attended to hygiene, kissed my wife goodbye, and headed off around 6 am to fill up the gas tank before making my trek to Richton Park. The drive actually only two about an hour and a half, so I got there much earlier than necessary. I killed time by driving around the immediate neighbourhood and checking on Twitter updates. At 8:15, I went in and was seen by the principal immediately.
The interview went very well, I think. The principal (a former teacher at Champaign Centennial, coincidentally), asked me about my approach to standardised tests, classroom management, repeat offenders, parental contact, and differentiation. He was brief and to the point, and my responses were in kind. Then he told me about his school district: 98% African-American, pure chaos when he arrived six years ago, with test scores in the bottom 70%. A year later, he suggested that students wear navy or black pants and white shirts (but no formal dress code or school uniform was made). Everyone complied. Discipline problems have gone way down, academic success has gone way up. The parents are extremely supportive, too, but they also work a lot, so they can’t be there every day. However, the school hosts an annual Dads’ Day, in which over 250 fathers in the community attend, some of whom don’t even have kids in the school! The test scores are now in the low-to-mid-80s, but they need to go higher. The focus will be on literacy and mathematics (woo hoo!) but without excluding science, social studies, health, etc. Literacy will be taught across the curriculum (double woo hoo!) and the teachers are encouraged to do whatever it takes to reach their students.
This is where I want to work. A district with challenges, but the resources to tackle the challenges head-on. No excuses, take no prisoners, give it all you go, go big or go home. It isn’t about machismo or teaching to the test, or anything like that. It is about helping the boys and girls in this school become young men and young women, literate and ready for the challenges ahead of them. It is awesome, it is enthusiastic, it is positive. It is what I want to be a part of.
Is Matteson 162 the only district in the state like this? No, of course not. But their principal gave me the chance to interview and to discuss how I might be an advantage to his community. As with some other districts, I would be thrilled to work there. He said I should hear back from him on Friday. I am praying I get a phone call from the 708 area code on Friday that will have good news!
(Oh, and we would be much closer to many of our friends in the prevention field–always an added bonus!)
Hopefully I won’t be boring anyone with my summer reading but, then, my main purpose in blogging is for personal reflection and recording, not for gaining an audience. (That being said, I certainly appreciate those who come and read my musings and those who comment, as well.)
As previously noted, I am working my way through Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan/John Clark universe” collection. I just finished reading Red Rabbit, which is a later book (in terms of when it was written), but takes place early on. Over all, I enjoyed the book. It gives some interesting insights into life in Soviet Socialist Russia in the early 1980s, albeit from a very Western perspective.
It is fun to see how Tom Clancy places his characters in key places in history, or, rather, in the alternate universe that parallels our own. The American president in clearly Ronald Reagan, but his name is never given. Likewise with the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher or the Polish Pope, John Paul II. This is an idiosyncratic thing that Clancy does in nearly all of his books. The players in the various government bureaus all have names, like Emil Jacobs, head of the FBI, Arthur Moore, Director of Central Intelligence, and his two deputies, James Greer and Bob Ritter. But the Heads of State are always referred to by title, not name. Even the Royal Family in England is never named.
The story focuses on Clancy’s fictionalised account of one of the many theories surrounding the assassination attempt on Pope John Pual II in the early 1980s. Not knowing much about the actual historical account beforehand, other than the fact that it had happened and that it was the primary reason for the Popemobile being more secure with bullet-proof glass. (Interesting side-note: apparently “Popemobile” is an acceptable informal term for the vehicle that has no formal moniker. Go figure.) The “Red Rabbit” is a Soviet defector (“rabbit” being used as an espionage terms to describe a defector) who has learned of the assassination plot on the Pope and wishes to alert the Americans so as to protect the life of an innocent man.
While enjoyable, it was not the most suspenseful of Clancy’s novels, and it certainly didn’t have the usual plots, sub-plots, and sub-sub-plots that are typical of his works. I get the feeling that this story was more of an attempt to flesh out the Ryan biography (and earn some more money) than to really present a gripping tale of suspense and intrigue. Next up is The Hunt for Red October, which was actually the first Clancy novel I ever read.
Today I had an interview at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Champaign. I was interviewing for a 2nd grade (gifted) position that is, in many ways, a new position.
In past years, the gifted program at BT Washington has been two classrooms: 2/3 and 4/5. This year, there will be three: 2, 3, and 4/5. Another change is in the school itself. BT Washington has long been the only bilingual school in the district. Many kindergarten students come in speaking only Spanish and learn English as they go through the grades. There are also English-speaking students who learn Spanish every other day. The district is moving (or just closing–I’m not clear which) the bilingual program, and turning the building into a STEM magnet school – Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
All of this means that they are really looking for a candidate who has expertise in gifted education, science, technology, engineering, and math. (Although they would be okay with someone whose expertise is gifted and one of the four STEM classes). Alas, I have none of the above.
As a substitute teacher, my expertise is a mile wide and a fathom deep. It is deep, but it covers a vast array of topics. I am a generalist educator, first and foremost. I am very pleased with my broad knowledge base, and actually consider it to be a strong selling point for my qualifications for a full-time teaching position. It is a rare day when a student asks me a question and I don’t know the answer. Even rarer is when I can’t find the answer. So, honestly, I don’t know if this position really is the best one for me.
But we shall see. I have another job interview tomorrow morning for a 4th grade position in Richton Park (a Chicago suburb) and will hopefully have an interview in Urbana soon for another 4th grade position. Lots of interviews this summer. Gretch and I have already decided that, since I am only applying for jobs that I would actually accept if offered, I should take the first offer made. So it’ll be an exciting week!
Update: I apparently never blogged about my third job interview, which was for a 3rd grade position at Thomasboro Elementary just north of the Champaign-Urbana area. Thomasboro has a nice school and a great teaching staff. The principal and superintendent were both very supportive and I could tell that they work hard to work with their teachers to improve their school. I had the interview on June 21, not quite a week after my interview at Woodland. I sent the superintendent an email the following morning with a question and an additional letter of reference and got a reply back that, while they were very impressed, they selected someone else. Sorry about forgetting about it!