Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Christmas comes a little early this year

The date for delivery of the CFF grant equipment is fast approaching. According to an email from the company contracted to do the installing for us, the installation dates are scheduled for December 16th and 17th. In mid-November we received the first part of our shipment of equipment from CDW-G. We received one teacher laptop and one student laptop so that we could see exactly what we’d be getting. We’ve also received some of the mounting material as well as much of the wireless equipment.

The laptops are Lenovo R500 ThinkPads, and the primary differences between the student and teacher models are that the teacher models include a built in webcam and microphone and have some administrative software on them that the students won’t need to access. Also, the teachers’ memory was upgraded from the standard one gigabyte of RAM memory to two by the district so thanks go out to John, Sue and the administration for okaying that. These computers are a tad heavier than what many would think of for a laptop today, but that’s because they were built to withstand a bit more punishment than one you might buy for yourself from a retailer.

There is an amazing selection of software that is available that is already installed on the computers. Each computer has Microsoft Office 2007(Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Publisher, Movie Maker, and more), Adobe Design CS3 (Photoshop, Fireworks, Illustrator, InDesign, Dreamweaver, Flash, Acrobat, and more), Inspiration, ITunes , Google Earth and a number of free, Open Source programs. In addition, there is a collection of tools from Microsoft called Learning Essentials which is designed specifically for using Office products effectively in the classroom. Some of these products were new to me, so I would imagine some will be new to others as well.

The district opted not to get MS Vista as the operating system. These computers still run XP, so the learning curve is very slight. Microsoft Office 2007 may be a shock to those who haven’t ever used it because it is a complete redesign of the product from the 2003 version used here in the district. Personally, I like it better. It has several new features that make it much more efficient and workable, but it definitely takes some getting used to, and some people may be a bit put off by the differences.

Meanwhile, I’ve been flitting to and from various points on the map for training on how to best help teachers actually utilize all this stuff, and I’ve picked up a number of great ideas for all curriculum areas. I’ve also assembled a huge list of websites that can help teachers in the classroom. You can access my bookmarks by going to

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Job Switch

I love being in the classroom. I love standing in front of a classroom full of students and watching their faces as they think about something we're covering in a way they've never thought of before. I also like to think I'm fairly good at my job. I've had numerous students come back to me over the years to thank me for something I taught specifically or for our class in general.
It's these things that have made this weekend a rough one for me. On Friday I was offered a new job, and I've pretty much decided I'm going to take it.
Our school district got a HUGE grant this year from the PA state government called "Classrooms For the Future" (CFF). This grant gives the high school a ton of new technology for educational use in an effort to keep our schools competitive in the global arena. We're getting mobile laptop computer labs, laptops for teachers, overhead computer projectors, and Smart Boards. And in order to make certain that the tech is actually used properly, the grant also pays for a "technology coach"; a teacher whose job is to help the rest of the faculty learn to use the tech efficiently in facilitating learning. I put in my resume for the job early in the month, and Friday my principal came up and said I got it if I want it.
It's a totally lateral move. There's no more pay involve, and I wouldn't be an administrator. They'll get a long term substitute teacher to finish out the school year for me starting in early October. It's technically only a year long position as that's all the grant covers, so at the end of the year I'd go back to the classroom. However, many schools who already have the grant have kept the tech coach on, so there's the possiblity I would be asked to continue in that position next year. Even if the position disappears after the year is up, I don't lose any contract steps or seniority, and I step right back in with no penalties.
I'll miss being in the same classroom all day, especially this year. I really enjoy ALL my classes this year, something I haven't always been able to every year. And I'm not looking forward to announcing to them I'm leaving. But I will still be in the same school and I'll be in and out of the classes across the school, meaning I'll still be seeing and interacting with all of them. One of the best things about the position for me is that while I love teaching, I'm looking forward to NOT spending the hours grading papers.
I figure that even though I don't plan on going anywhere, this is a good resume padder, and quite frankly how many folks are offered the opportunity to try something completely new for a year with no financial risk?
It's going to make for an interesting year.

Friday, May 23, 2008

My Senior Final Exam Question

Two weeks until final exams. Geez I think I only finally got all my students' names right last week. How do you determine in one test how much your students are taking away from your class? Unlike President Bush, I don't feel that one single test can do such a thing, especially for the complex issues and ideas we discuss in my senior class. The closest I've been able to come is this essay question. This is what I gave my seniors about a week ago:

There is an unsettling trend in government today. Politicians have either been making overtures toward replacing the humanities (Art, Music, Literature, etc.) with more “relevant” material (composition and math), or pushing out the humanities with their insistence on copious standardized tests.

Assume that the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has announced that they are going to remove literature from the English classroom and make it straight composition writing, vocabulary, grammar and mechanics. You have the opportunity to write a letter that will be read by the determining body of the PDE. Defend keeping literature in the classroom.

You must use at least one work from each of the periods we covered in class during the course of the year and explain how it is a good example of what literature has to offer our society. You may use your notebooks as reference during the writing. You may not have a prewritten composition when you come to class. Your best bet is to have a well thought out outline of your points when you come in.

A good grade on this final means that you not only did well in this class, but that you have the potential to go out into the “real” world with the ability to think critically and question authority rationally—skills which will enrich your life no matter what your eventual career may be.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Poetic Bloodline

As the year wraps up, I always try to reinforce one last time to my seniors how important literature and poetry have been to the health and well being of humanity. After one of my spiels, a senior in my fourth period class sent me the link to this peom that was featured on HBO's Def Poetry series.

Freestyle isn't normally my cupa'joe, but this one did raise the hair on the back of my neck.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

How can such a great presentation make me feel so lousy?

Yesterday was an in-service day in my district, and rather than the usual meetings and rigmarole those days normally entail, we had a guest speaker, Dr. Willard Daggett of the International Center for Leadership in Education. Dr. Daggett is an impressive speaker who has the ability to hold an audience's attention through a presentation over five hours long (well, we had lunch in the middle).
The problem is that it was one of those presentations that contained information that I'm sure will keep me up nights if I think about it too much. I'm not going to go into details here just yet, as I am still sorting through all of it in my mind, but in essence he spelled out in very real terms the challenges to education in the United States that will be occurring in the next decade or so, and by extension he outlined the challenges to the country as a whole as well. And, to me at least, it's not pretty at all. Don't get me wrong, he did give numerous ways to help improve education here, but I think an unintended byproduct was that he made me feel that in a lot of ways, it would be rearranging the deck chairs on The Titanic.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Getting some love from Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert has been doing a great job in the past few weeks promoting, a site that allows people to donate directly to help fund programs in Pennsylvania public schools. Because of his efforts, the site raised more that $100,000 in just a few weeks. That alone puts him on my "what a great guy" list, but tonight he went over the top. He plugged the site once again during his build up to his own trip to Philly for the upcoming primary, and this time he mentioned a couple of the programs seeking funding. The first one took me by surprise because it was from my own district. Yes, he did joke concerning a request from Titusville Middle School's band program. Here's the bit:



Thanks, Stephen!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Taking Issue With A.E. Housman

Today my seniors read “To An Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman. Housman, for those who need a BritLit refresher, was a Victorian era homosexual whose spurned feelings of love during his youth lead him to write some great, horribly depressing poetry about unrequited love and decay brought on by age. “…Athlete…” is perhaps his most famous work.
It’s about a star runner who has died at an early age and the poet’s thoughts on how the runner was fortunate in that he has escaped the ravages of age not only on his physical being, but also on his athletic accomplishments. I was always a bit twitchy about how to approach this one in class.
I really thought it sends the wrong message, but it was difficult to argue with it. After all, we have celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Kurt Cobain, John Belushi, and now Heath Ledger who will always be remembered in their prime. Meanwhile, we have folks like Ozzie Osbourne, (shudder) Michael Jackson, and Muhammad Ali who it could be argued have had their legends degraded simply be living past their expiration dates.
Again, I knew in my heart that this message is plain wrong, but I really didn’t know how to counter it. Sadly, several years ago I realized exactly why it was wrong. I had a student that I knew for several years. He was one of my first students when I started teaching at my present school. I had him in seventh grade, then when I shifted to ninth two years later, I had him again, and I finally had him during his senior year. He was a great kid who could not only be counted on to say something humorous when appropriate, but also to add a salient observation about what we were studying when it was time to really crack the book. One day in April he was absent.
I didn’t think too much about it because “senioritis” hits a lot of twelfth graders in the last two months of the year, and he missed infrequently. Classes went on as usual, but at the end of the day the principal came over the speakers asking all teachers to report to the library after the last bell for a short meeting. This is never a good thing. Getting that message is akin to getting a phone call at 3 AM. No one’s ever calling to tell you good news. Though I was prepared for something bad, I wasn’t ready for what it was. This bright young man had committed suicide earlier in the day.
Though it always affects me when a student I have or have had in the past dies (and it has happened far, far too often), this hit me harder than most because of how long I knew him and how much respect I had for his potential. To make matters worse, when I got home and had to get ready for the next day’s lesson, I realized what I had on the agenda.
“To An Athlete Dying Young.”
I didn’t know what to do. I wondered if it would be appropriate; would the students think this was validating their classmate’s actions? Would I be condoning suicide as a viable option? Hell, I wondered if I could even get through it without breaking down myself. I probably tossed in bed until 4 AM debating myself over what to do. By morning I came to my conclusion.
I taught the poem, but I took a different approach than in previous years. We read it as usual, though the class was more somber than previous years’. We listed the celebs and sports stars who will always be remembered in their glory years, and we listed those that probably wish they could be. And when our friend’s name came up and the question was asked, I was ready.
I asked my class exactly what they felt Housman’s reason was for thinking the athlete was “lucky” to die young. They all agreed that it was because he would be remembered for his fame. Then I asked if fame is the most important thing in a person’s life. Where does family and friendship come in? I said that yes, I would always remember that student, our friend, as a virile eighteen year old. I’ll always remember him for the accomplishments he had in school and on the field that were still green and new when he made that tragic mistake. He was locked in amber with the laurel still upon his head, just like Housman said. But what’s missing is that now I will never have the joy of seeing him return in later years with a paunch, perhaps a receding hairline, glasses…and a wife and child beaming with love from behind him.
Houseman’s poem assumes that we live for the renown we can gather, that glory is the only thing that makes life worth living. I now argue that those things are great, but they’re mile markers, not the destination. An early death robs a person of all the other things in life that at the very least are just as important as athletic, youthful achievements. So I guess that while I appreciate what A.E. Housman said, I have to say I disagree with him vehemently on it. That’s the beauty of some works of literature; we can learn as much about life and ourselves by deciding the author had it wrong as when he has it right.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Pulling Kipling out from under the rug

Rudyard Kipling was always one of my dad's favorite authors. I remember him quoting "Gunga Din" and "Charge of the Light Brigade" from memory when I was growing up, and I knew the plot of Kim long before I ever read it. There was a time when he was considered one the premiere authors of the Victorian age. Yet when you page through the literature books we use today, he's barely a blip.

Where Gerard Hopkins gets an individual entry and four or five poems, Kipling is relegated to a bio page he shares with three second stringers, and we only get one poem, "Recessional." While I realize that much of what he wrote is an uncomfortable reminder of the era of brazen empire building during the reign of Victoria, I also believe that Kipling's work gives us meaning that is extremely relevant today.

I doubt there is a high school literature book published in the U.S. that contains "White Man's Burden," but I find that work eerily prophetic. Kipling wrote the poem as a way of giving the United States some advice when he saw that we were dipping a toe into the pool of military expansionism. He saw what Britain had gone through and wanted us to be fully aware of what we were in for if we followed in their footsteps. Which we did. Boy, did we ever. Whether he was for our involvement or was warning us not to engage in empire building is beside the point. Take his name off the poem, remove the date and show the poem to anyone in the country and I'd bet you'd find that most would guess that the poem was written within the last seven years. Screw Nostradamus, Kipling is the true prophet of 911.

I just find it sad that so many academics who preach that to ignore history's lessons is to repeat their mistakes are so willing to hide one of history's potentially great teachers simply because they're embarrassed of the period in which he lived.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Mandated Testing

Today our district completes the mandated testing required by the state in order to satisfy the NCLB. It takes three hours a day for three days, so I haven't seen my ninth graders in class since Monday. In addition, my district has the students take diagnostic reading tests three times during the year to gauge students ability to pass these tests. So that's over a week of school lost to this mandate.
This of course doesn't include all the teaching to the test that is done to keep a building out of "school improvement," the state coming in and usurping local authority and dictating what the curriculum will be. Amazing, isn't it--the administration that preaches less government regulation comes up with more and more ways to yank authority away for the local population, and that states that kids' education is lacking (after all, our President had to ask us "is our children learning"), puts in effect a system that makes us drop everything educational for days at a time.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Tennyson's Ulysses still resonates with me

I've never had a problem telling my classes when we hit a poem or work that I'm not particularly enamored to, mainly because I want them to know I'm serious when we begin something that is one of my favorites. This unit, we're doing a number of works that I'm very fond of, but none more so that Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Ulysses." Ulysses, of course, is the Roman name of the Greek hero and protagonist of Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. It tells the tale of the king of Ithaca's ten year voyage home, and though he never stops trying to reach his kingdom and family, he enjoys the many adventures he has along the way. Tennyson's poem is continuation of that story that picks up several years after his return. Ulysses tires of the mundane and tedious duties of tending to his homeland and yearns for a return to the adventurous life he once knew.

"How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!"

Thus, he turns his kingdom over to his son Telemachus and begins a dramatic plea to his old crew mates (those who didn't sail with him on his last voyage, apparently) to join him on one last glorious adventure. I've loved this poem for decades. I inherited most of my grandmother's books when she died, and one of those books was an old collection of Tennyson's works that smelled of attics and memories. I enjoyed Tennyson's poetry as far back as seventh grade because of his affection for classic heroic subjects like King Arthur and Odysseus, and I've always been a sucker for heroic fiction.

Yet it wasn't until college that I truly appreciated it, and for that I have to explain the time frame. I was going for my teaching certification at Edinboro University back in 1990. This was just shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and near worldwide collapse of Communism.

To those for whom the Berlin Wall is merely the stuff of text books and retrospective segments on Channel One, I will say that these were exciting times. The world was divided between East and West for as long as I'd been alive, and nothing represented that delineation more than that dour set piece of masonry, machine gun posts, and barbed wire. Seeing it topple and be smashed by thousands of frantic Germans seemed like a vindication of everything I'd ever read on the virtues of Freedom and Democracy. The only bastions of the communist menace left it seemed were Cuba (big whoop) and China...and China seemed like it was next.

I remember watching the events in Tienanmen Square unfold over the course of a few days. It seems odd now to think about it without also feeling the sense of horror and loss that accompanies the knowledge of how it inevitably turned out. I remember how exciting it was to see the hundreds, then thousands of young men and women gathering to request, then demand a measure of democracy in their country.

I didn't have any reason to think they wouldn't succeed; after all, communism had been shown not to work, and the abbreviation "U.S.S.R." was already being measured for a coffin, and plot for it was being dug to lay it to rest in the potters' fields of new social studies books. Nothing seemed more impressive to me at the time than the way the protesters (almost instantaneously it seemed) erected their own version of the Statue of Liberty. It was one of the most interesting times I could imagine being alive.

I had forgotten, however, that "may you live in interesting times" is considered a Chinese curse.

Dictatorships are notoriously fond of remaining in power, and the old, morally bankrupt men running China were no exception. They sent the People's Army in to quell the protests by any means necessary. The dread we felt watching the tanks rolling down the street towards the students was tense enough, but it was amped up to an unbelievable degree when we first saw the now iconic image of the lone student facing down those tanks while armed only with a book bag.

We don't know this guy's name or face. I'm still not sure we're 100 percent positive it was even a guy, but his actions in front of those tanks that day redefined the way I look at heroism. In the United States it would be risky proposition as well, but here we have oversight, we have the media scrutinizing everything the military does, and we have redress for grievances. In China none of that can be counted on to make a tank commander pause to consider the consequences when he finds 120-pounds-soaking-wet agitator yelling at him from in front of his fifteen ton vehicle.

By rights that kid should have become a big flat slice of street pizza. But he wasn't. After a stand off of more than a half hour, this kid cajoled, coerced and shamed the tanks into turning around.

That student had no way of knowing that he'd succeed that day. In fact, having lived in China and knowing what his government was capable of, I'd dare say he had to know he was likely going to his death.

He did it anyways.

The next day, of course, the tanks came back. They did not stop or turn around, and hundreds, perhaps thousands of protesters were killed or imprisoned, and to this day China remains a hidebound dictatorship.

So what does this have to do with "Ulysses"?

When we read this poem back in Edinboro, the professor had decided to show off some newfangled presentation material for the poem that involved watching various images of heroic acts caught over the years while a Shakespearean actor read a stirring rendition of the poem in voice over. There were many images that we're all familiar with: Martin Luther King giving a speech, the flag planting at Iwo Jima, the rescuers pulling baby Jessica out of a well in Texas. But when the poem got to the end,

"It may be that the gulfs will wash us down: It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in the old days Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are, One equal-temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will"

The presentation focused on the scene with the tanks. And when it got to

"To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

The image froze and zoomed in slowly on the grainy image of the young student, and at that point I got it.

Heroism isn't about doing the right thing knowing you're going to succeed; it's about doing the right thing even when you know you will probably lose. See, Ulysses doesn't plan on coming back from his voyage. He knows he will likely bump into Achilles, the great hero who died in the Trojan War. Doesn't matter--he's going anyways. True heroism is doing what's right for the sake of doing what's right. I probably wouldn't have picked up on that had I not seen a modern day Ulysses holding a book bag on a dangerous street in China back in 1989. Like his Greek counterpart, he realized the gulfs were ready to wash him down, but he faced them anyways because it was the right thing to do.