NJCTE Spring 2014

So, today was the NJCTE spring conference, and this year one of the attendees was Sarah Gross, who was awarded the Teacher of the Year award. She is a blogger with the NY Times, and when I got home I figured I’d check out her stuff. The most recent post is about Socratic seminars, which is a fancy educator way of saying class discussions. The blog post is here: http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/14/skills-practice-socratic-seminars-using-informational-text/?smid=fb-share 

I just want to let it be known that I TOTALLY DID THIS LAST WEEK BEFORE THIS BLOG POST WAS PUBLISHED! I used the article about the SAT they suggest and we talked about the same quotes they point out and I had my students mark the text and I feel like a badass for doing the same thing as a Teacher of the Year level teacher. Only difference is my guiding question was about the connection of standardized testing and success, not about if it makes sense to overhaul the test to make it more fair.

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It’s Been A While

I  haven’t posted in ages, mostly because I haven’t had anything noteworthy to say. I feel like the old adage, ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’ ought to be re-written for blogging as ‘If you can’t say anything interesting, don’t say anything at all!’

The Spring conference of NJCTE was wonderful (though admittedly forever ago). I especially enjoyed ‘s presentation on media literacy, film, screenplay writing, and fanfiction in the classroom. (Sidenote: I just heard the first Italian Ice truck jingle of the season! Which again drives home the point that I should have written this post in April and it is now the end of June). Laura Harrington, author of Alice Bliss, read a little from the novel and all attendees got a paperback copy. I tore through mine in a weekend and loved it. If you have a Goodreads account, more eloquent people than I have reviewed it there and you should add it to your To-Read shelf. There was a lot more at the conference that was fun and exciting, a couple of presenters from last year did presentations again, Christopher de Vinck and Jennifer Ansbach were big hits. Attendance was high, we actually barely had enough goody bags for all attendees, so future attendees, take note! Register early and arrive on time!

I had a blast helping Dr. Nicosia with the conference, and I loved working with and for her in general these past two years. She is an inspiration to me, both professionally and personally. A beautiful woman with a huge, loving heart who I wish I could continue to work with. Sadly, during student teaching I’m not allowed to be a graduate assistant due to the huge time commitment needed to do either of those things well, so I won’t have the privilege of being her graduate assistant anymore. I’m going to miss being in her office, hearing her talk to herself as she works. I already miss overhearing her students when they come to her to seek her guidance, or students who come back to her years later to thank her for being a good teacher and mentor. I’ll miss chatting with her husband, the Other Dr. Nicosia, when he drops by before or after teaching his course. I hope to someday be able to buy his book (Marathon) because I certainly enjoyed reading the draft!

I am so lucky to have people like them in my life.

Looking to the future, this summer I’ll be working for a summer camp program that teaches children social skills and problem solving. I’m really excited about it; we start on Monday and I hope the experience will be educational for me as well as for the children in the program. Before I was hired I was bored. I had nothing to do, and nothing to look forward to but September, and even that wasn’t so great because of the loads of anxiety over STILL not having an official placement for student teaching. So I did a little home-improvement project (I repainted the bathroom walls and refinished the cabinet, it looks so much better) and got to thinking about doing a little self-improvement project over the summer. On Tumblr someone I follow posted a link to this site, which offers alternatives to sexist, homophobic, ableist, racist insults, which I’m using as a starting point to assess my linguistic habits and options. The list isn’t comprehensive there, but it’s a start. I’ve been aware for some time now that I use problematic ableist language sometimes, like saying “lame” when I mean stupid or undesirable. I’m going to make an effort to remove that from my vocabulary.  My new personal favorite insult is fartsniffer. I hope by September that ‘lame’ will be removed from my vocabulary as an insult and instead only used when discussing horses that limp or politicians in their last term.

Literacy Autobiography

This semester I am beginning my professional sequence, taking courses that are not theory but practical, how-to classes. One class I am enjoying immensely thus far is Methods of Teaching English, taught by the wonderful Dr. Laura Nicosia (if you’ve never read my blog before you need to know that I love her and she is wonderful and also I work as her graduate assistant). Our first assignment was to write a brief literacy autobiography. There were a few prompt-like questions to get us started, such as “What is your first memory of reading? What was the first book you read and loved?” Essentially the question I sought to answer is, “Why do I love reading? What experiences have led me to be the reader I am?” These questions are of course related, and I think these are vital questions for future English teachers to consider. Below is my much-edited response (we were only allowed two pages! So many memories, so little space to squish the words into!) I have no doubt I could go on, detailing more specific books I loved and how they helped make me the person I am today, but I think the point is well made below, and there is always the option of discussing those books at a later time, in a book review and personal essay hybrid (now that I’ve thought of that, I’m fairly certain I’ll end up writing at least one such blog post).

Literacy Autobiography

My earliest memory of books and reading may not be a genuine memory, but that sort of false memory that forms when you’ve heard a story about yourself told so many times that you start to feel as though you remember it, too. For my entire childhood my parents read to me, and when I was about two years old my favorite book was a chunky cardboard book called No, No Nicky! about a mischievous kitten who was curious about everything, and got into trouble for it. I loved this book, with its thick pages that even my clumsy toddler fingers could turn and its strict admonishing of the sweet kitten to behave himself and follow the rules. I loved this book so much that I made my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles read it to me over and over again until I had memorized it. I sat down with the adults in my life and ‘read’ it to them, with perfectly timed pauses and page turning. My Uncle Fran was convinced I was a baby genius, until my mother shattered the illusion and told him I’d memorized the book.

Reading was always important in my house. If you asked me to describe my childhood, I’d tell you it was playing tea party and dress-up with my sister by day (creating and telling our own stories) and listening to our parents read us bedtime stories at night (providing models for us to structure our storytelling). Mom read like a bedtime story was a cup of Celestial Seasons Sleepytime tea, a distinctly pre-bed activity; very calm, very soothing, very much like singing a lullaby. Dad read with voices and sound effects and dramatic moments! Dad was also more likely to ad lib and try to skip through books he didn’t like as much as we did, resulting in squeals of “Daddy, nooooooo! You skipped it; go back go back go back!” Prized possessions in our library included The Piggy in the Puddle and A Garden for Miss Mouse, both candidates on the short list of Books Dad Would Prefer to Not Have to Read Again.

The first book I actually read (instead of reciting from memory) was Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. Mom got it to read to us girls, and when we came home I told her, “I can read it to you, and you can listen.” We sat on the bottom bunk (my sister’s bunk, naturally) with Mom on one side of me and Rachel on the other and I read the whole story to them. I was so, so proud of myself, I’d read this book that I had never heard or seen before without needing help. This was freedom! Independence! The world of books now mine to access whenever I wanted, no waiting for my parents. From there, I remember loving books and loving the act of reading. There is still something magical about finding a quiet place, opening a book, and just leaving my world for whatever was going on in the story and knowing I could stop and return to the real world at any time. There was (and is) so much out there, waiting to be explored from the safety of my own room.

When my family moved during third grade, I dug into books (Little House on the Prairie, the Wayside School books, The Magic School Bus). I could take them with me anywhere, unlike a stuffed animal or other comfort item. They’d make me laugh and feel good, like friends, and books wouldn’t ever make fun of me for my thick glasses and homemade jumpers (though I ardently believe I still would have read for the magic transformative property of it even if I hadn’t been the nerdy new girl). The stories inside them were exciting without actual danger, unless I was caught reading when I should have been doing classwork. Books gave me something to do with my hands, even if that something was just to hold them, and something to think about, or something to talk about. Sharing the facts from Magic School Bus books was a fixture of dinner conversation in my house at the time when those books were the best part of the Scholastic book fair. I think books kept me from being lonely when I didn’t know anyone else, and it is because I was a reader that I formed the friendships I still have with other readers in my class.

Fantasy has been my genre of choice since it occurred to me around age 10 that Camelot wasn’t just a movie my mother watched as a child (she remembered my name from a double feature she saw as a girl), but a legend about which books were written. Sharing a name with the Queen of Camelot is certainly incentive to try to find out more about the fictional court she presided over. Reading retellings and assorted interpretations of her tragic romance out of curiosity (initially about her, then about how she could be both so powerful and so powerless in her position as Queen; the relationship between social scrutiny and political power in court stories still fascinates me) led to an ongoing interest in both retellings of fairy tales (Robin Hood is my other preferred mythology) and all things medieval that ultimately steered me toward excellent authors like Gerald Morris, Donna Jo Napoli, Robin McKinley and Tamora Pierce. Reading their works helped me form ideas of what it is to be a good person. The things I read continue to challenge and shape my worldview. Books and storytelling show us different ways of being in the world. I believe that the stories we connect with help us navigate the world and become the unique people we are just as the experiences we live through shape us.

Student Feedback

The end of another semester is upon us, and I haven’t blogged since the election. I think I should stop telling myself I’ll post more often, because at this point I think we all know it is a horrible, horrible lie.

Still, the holiday season is upon us and I got the best present today. Its technically not even a present. It was an email from an undergraduate student I tutored last year and a little over the summer. It may be the sweetest email I have ever received. She passed the Praxis II exam (yaaaaaay!) after multiple attempts and wanted to thank me for my help and encouragement, “Thank you so much for never giving up on me and rooting for me all way! You are going to make such an amazing teacher and I can’t wait to share our experience with my future students!” She had a really difficult time with the test but I knew she could do it, and she did, and I am so proud.

They say you do not teach for the easy kids, or the honors students. They say the ones who will get it on their own, or the ones who could teach themselves given a textbook and Khan Academy videos, are not the students who make you a teacher. It is the ones who struggle, who fail, who need to be guided, lifted, supported. They say those are the students who make you a teacher.

I agree.

In other news, I’m really excited to start my professional sequence with observation hours next semester. I’ve always enjoyed watching skilled people perform and learning from observation; its how I learned to tango and its how I learned to write. Watch an expert and see what they go out of their way to do and what they avoid doing. I’m also looking forward to taking a class with Dr. Nicosia! I am so lucky to have worked with her for the last year and a half, being back in her classroom is going to be wonderful.

One final thing! This Tumblr is hilarious, and you should definitely check it out: Teacher Thought Bubble. If you have ever been either a student or a teacher (so, basically everyone) you will laugh out loud and recognize and remember your own school days.

Presidential Debate Number One

I haven’t been very active blogging this semester, because it has been so busy, but I made time to watch the debate and now I’m making time to reflect on what I saw and heard there before I listen to other analysis (which I suspect may skew my initial thoughts). I think that being aware of the issues in election season is an important part of being an informed, involved citizen, which is why I watched the debate tonight even though I’ve already decided who I’m voting for. There were a lot of things the candidates said that I disagree with, but the thing that jumped out at me the most was Mitt Romney using the phrase “disabled kids” while talking about medicare and medicaid. As a future teacher and special educator, I expect that a person in his position of power and influence would use people-first language, saying “children with disabilities” to acknowledge that children with disabilities are children first, regardless of their level of ability. From a cynical viewpoint I would expect politicians, who should be well aware of the power of language, to know about people-first language and use it out of respect and to avoid alienating an ever growing segment of the population.

Aside from that, my main criticism with the debate doesn’t have to do with anything the candidates said, but with what was never mentioned. The debate questions failed to include any questions about women’s health or workplace equality, even though the first half of the debate was entirely about economic issues and many of the talking points related to Obamacare. How is it that in a time when women are still earning 80 cents on the dollar and make up the majority of swing votes the presidential debate on domestic issues does not mention women’s issues at all? No questions and no candidate comments related to women’s healthcare or economic situation. The closest we get is discussing healthcare for senior citizens, who are mostly women, due to women’s tendency to live longer but less healthy lives than their male age-mates. It disappoints me.

Education, of course, was touched on and talk of investing and hiring 100,000 new math and science teachers was bandied about. My thing here is that more teachers won’t necessarily help make our students more successful. The best predictor of future success is not the quality of your math teacher. It’s your social and emotional intelligence; something we are not focusing on in our schools because of the push for more rigorous academic work. But that is an issue for another day. As for the investment in teachers and education; I’ll believe it all when I see it. We still have a very negative climate in this country where teachers are being vilified and criticized for all sorts of things beyond the control of any individual.

I hope that the next debate, which will be town hall style, is better. This one fell apart because the moderator wasn’t holding them to their time limits, asking real follow-ups, or calling them out when they didn’t answer the question. I also hope that women’s issues will be addressed, and I feel fairly optimistic that may happen, since there will be a female moderator for a change.