Sisyphus

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Heaving, my lungs made of fire, have surely already burst.  Numb, but a paradoxical numbness in which the ache is far worse than if engorged in embers, my arms can no longer push.  Quaking uncontrollably, ready to break free and walk away from the rest of my excruciating body in order to die in peace, my legs are past worthless.  And my back!  Oh, my back!  I would rather have had Satan himself cut through it with a dull butter knife for the last 24 hours than have it struggle to not collapse in on itself any longer.  If it did, though, then at least I would have the relief of death.  Relief.  I need relief.  And at this thought, I watch as the boulder, which was seconds ago mere centimeters from the edge of the precipice, shoots back down the exact route in which I just pushed it up.  I look down into the darkness, the darkness of the other side of the cliff.  I could jump.  What would happen if I just jumped?  But I don’t.  I never have.  Because I feel a pull towards the boulder — the wretched boulder that I have spent an unfathomable amount of time caressing, unthinkingly memorizing every miniscule crack, divot, and shadow, continuously pushing literally a hair width farther up the cliff, only to tragically watch as it returns to its original spot at the bottom — and for reasons I truly cannot explain I know that it can never leave me.  Or, perhaps, I can never leave it.  I can never rest until it sits atop the cliff.  My name is Sisyphus.  This is my personal Hell.

Crushing the Crossword Culture

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I used to be really, really fast at crossword puzzles. Like, scary fast. Everyone in my 1st grade class was. Because every day for at least an hour (spread out throughout the day) we were expected to sit at our desks doing them. And that, my friends, is why I want to be a teacher. Not so I can have my students spend literally over a week of their lives (I seriously did the math just now. It totaled to 7.5 days of my life as a 7 year old.) doing crossword puzzles or coloring Santa’s reindeer or filling out bubbles for the correct vocabulary word, but so I can actually give my students and education. And to ensure that I’m ready to do that, I plan to develop as a teacher by …….

Christmas break:

  • Read Hatchet
  • Read American Sniper
  • Read at least one graphic novel
  • Read at least one professional development book
  • Blog weekly
  • Be slightly more active on Twitter (the educational side of it)

Next semester:

  • Widen my repertoire of Ted Talks (specifically ones I can use while teaching and to learn about teaching)
  • Find out more about speed reading
  • Read at least one professional development book
  • Blog weekly
  • Read more YA lit

Almost all of my goals center on reading and writing. I want to always develop as a learner and show my that I’m excited about learning, too! I can’t wait to read the ways everyone else plans to continue to develop as pre-service teachers!

Press Your Luck: Whammy Style

I’m not a risk taker.  Too often I ask myself, “Am I pressing my luck?”  I’ve seen game shows before, after all.  All too many times I’ve seen a guy on the brink of a million dollars or some lady about to win a brand new convertible and an all-expenses paid vacation and lose it because they’re greedy little daredevils.  As a viewer of light-hearted, intended-for-entertainment game shows, I take the misfortunes stemmed from greed of game show contestants very seriously.

But today I started to wonder.  Do I miss out on life by being a Cautious Carla?  (I hope that term catches on, by the way.)  Do I inadvertently lose by being so afraid of losing?  What would happen if I took a page out of Jim Carey’s “Yes Man” script?  Let’s find out, shall we?  So on this 15th day of December, a random Tuesday in a random week of a random year, I pledge to start trying a few risky adventures.  Toast my sandwich at Subway?  Why not?  Dye a strand of my hair blonde?  As long as it’s not too noticeable!  Introduce myself to a stranger?  Okay, let’s not get too carried away here.  It’s not like I’m Michael Larson.  (If you don’t get the reference consult Google and connect what you find back to my post title and post picture.)

Try to get in the spirit yourself: Go forth and press your luck.

Words, Words, Words: Teaching Vocabulary in Grades 4-12

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Janet Allen begins her book with a quote from Baumann and Kameenui that summarizes not only vocabulary, but language arts, teaching, and life in general. “We know too much to say we know too little, and we know too little to say that we know enough.” Amen, research team, amen! Aside from letting me know that I actually know nothing, Allen gave me insight on how to teach vocabulary and why it is necessary to teach vocabulary.

We use the words that we actually hear others say, the media say, and words that we actually read. Early on, Allen relates a story about how several times she used the term “delayed gratification” in class and a few weeks later she heard one of her students use it while chastising a fellow student. This real life example makes sense. In Special Methods I’ve learned that when it comes to education, if it’s not something that the average person would plausibly do in real life, then it’s probably not going to go over well in the classroom, or be worthwhile. In real life, do we run to the nearest dictionary in order to look up a word in our book? No. We either ignore it or pull out our devices and type it into Google. So why do we tell kids to do just that in the classroom? Do we want to do something if it’s hard and we don’t enjoy it? Of course not! So how can we expect students to read (and especially read more complex literature), have “an inquisitiveness about word meanings and derivations”, or have “a more diverse and richer use of language in speech and writing” if we don’t use realistic methods for teaching vocabulary?

Reading and vocab work hand in hand. In order to enjoy and understand what we read, we must be able to comprehend what we read. Having a strong vocabulary affects comprehension. On the other hand, “reading is the single most important factor in increased word knowledge.” Without the continued work on one skill we cannot have the other.

Instead of the drill and kill method for vocabulary instruction, Allen recommends coming at teaching vocab in a number of more productive ways such as repeating words in various contexts, describing the words, supporting words with visuals, connecting words with students’ lives, extending words with anecdotes, making associations, comparing and contrasting words, and rephrasing sentences. Play word games! Everyone loves hangman. Invest in Pictionary, Scrabble, or let your students play Words with Friends! Just remember, vocabulary is important, but so also is engaging lessons about it. If we continue to assign leveled vocab books with random words that the students will forget 30 seconds later, then why do we bother to teach at all?

Dirty Laundry

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Photo CC by Jason Hoang

I’m about to air some dirty laundry. Well, actually, it was clean. But dirty or clean, everyone freaks out when they find a thong at work. I think everyone, anyway. That summer 90% of my coworkers were men, (18 out of 20 to be exact) and at that point in the morning, everyone who was there was (surprise!) a man. I assume that a woman’s reaction to an unclaimed thong (as long as it’s not in her husband’s dresser drawer) is a little less … awkward. Regardless of reactions, please keep in mind that by thong, I mean panties.

I used to have a bad habit of putting my laundry away days after it was done. My mom would put it all in my room after it had been washed and dried and it would pile up (mistake number one). It was back when I was 18, fresh out of high school and as lazy as a new graduate can be. My dear mom would say, “If you’re old enough to be called an adult then you’re old enough to do your own laundry.” (Honestly, looking back, I think she probably should have done that years before. It would have been good for her because she would have had less work to worry about and good for me because then maybe the story I’m telling wouldn’t have unfolded … pun intended.) Even though in retrospect I think, “Wow. How hard was it to just put my clothes away?” I obviously didn’t have the foresight to know that such a lazy little habit would haunt me for an entire summer.

I was working for the City of Buffalo as a groundskeeper. We worked early in the morning but we were done by the peak of heat in the afternoon. In Northeastern Wyoming the summer days can reach well over 90 degrees, but the mornings are a cool 40. Every day I would wake up 20 minutes before work, throw my hair in an unattractive, sloppy bun which I hid under a ball cap, grab a sweatshirt and some breakfast, and head out the door. Even in July it was always chilly. I would crank the heat so I could endure the entire 10 minute trip to town without pulling the sweater over my head (mistake number two). The specific day of the thong incident, after I pulled into the dirt lot, I grabbed my lunch, pink hooded sweatshirt, and proceeded to the shop. Like any other day I put my sack lunch in the community fridge, headed to the microwave to heat up my breakfast, pulled my sweater over my head, and replaced my ball cap quickly over my wild hair. The beeping of the microwave made my stomach rumble and once I sat down I immediately began to devour my chocolate chip muffins. All too quickly the delight of my tongue and the relief of my stomach vanished as one of the street crew members tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the ground behind me, asking “Is this yours?” Following the direction of his finger, my eyes beheld a lacey, purple thong on the grimy tile floor. Genuinely shocked at what I was seeing, my eyes widened and I violently shook my head no. It wasn’t until a couple of the garbage men (sanitation experts, if you prefer) came over, and held up the thong for all of the world to see, that I realized I had inadvertently lied. That was my underwear being juvenilely thrown from face to face, passed around like a hot potato – a very interesting hot potato. As a matter of fact, not only was it my underwear, it was my favorite pair! It must have gotten stuck in the hood of my sweatshirt and fell out once I put it on! Because of the curse of static cling, I had to watch in silence as a group of dirty old men ogled at my thong, laughed at my thong, and turned into 8 year olds because of my thong. The only reason I didn’t die of embarrassment on the spot was because someone blamed the garbage guys for bringing it in and blaming me – an untrue story that I don’t know how many people believed, but that I backed up adamantly.

Throughout the day when I checked into the shop, there my panties sat, the center of attention of at least two delighted men. Finally, at the end of the day, the one other woman who was at work that day, disgustedly grabbed my thong and threw it in the trash, ranting about how she worked with a bunch of animals.

Mortified, dazed, and dismayed, that night I recounted the incident to my mom who, by trying to make the situation better, made it a whole lot worse. She told me of one of her own embarrassing stories to try to put the humiliation I felt in perspective. Apparently, when my brother was in kindergarten, a pad from her bikini top got stuck in his coat sleeve. As he took it off that morning it fell out and a few other kids saw it. Putting myself in her shoes, I didn’t see how this moment was even worth storing in memory, let alone anything to feel embarrassed about. Because of this, I thought that I really must be a drama queen and the anxiety I felt began to greatly subside. Then, all of a sudden, my mother realized that by “thong” I meant something a little sexier than the summertime shoe. Her laughter took what felt like years to subside. At some point between the sixth and seventh year, I decided that my fashion faux pas was just as horrifying as I had originally thought, and that the months left of summer vacation were going to be as full of memories as my hamper full of clothes. If any good did come out of this story, it is that now I put my laundry away straight from the dryer. From now on, I’ll be on the defense of static cling.

Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement

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I think comedian George Burns said it best: “Too bad that all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxicabs and cutting hair.” While I’ve honestly never looked into it, I’ve heard many times before that those who wrote the Common Core Standards were not just politicians: textbook conglomerates had a big hand in the act too. If it’s hard to understand why this is a conflict of interest as well as frightening, think of the kid in a candy store saying. Scary, no? While Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman do their best to find a silver lining to the Common Core in “Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement”, I just came up with more reasons why the initiative is asinine.

The purpose of the book is not to glorify nor to discount the Common Core. I believe that their goal in writing this book was to simply help teachers understand the document and discover ways to implement teaching the standards. The advice I found most helpful from the book is to pay attention to phrases that pop up frequently in the Standards. For instance, “these are some of the phrases that are repeated in the descriptive text leading into the reading standards: “close, attentive reading” (CCSS 2010a, 3), “critical reading” (3), “reasoning and use of evidence” (3), “comprehend, evaluate, synthesize” (4), “comprehend and evaluate” (7), “understand precisely … question … assess the veracity” (7), and “reading independently and closely” (10).” Knowing that my students are to be able to perform or improve upon each of these skills can lead me to more focused lesson plans. For instance, in class one day I decided to give a mini lesson on making predictions. Being able to hone this skill is something that actual readers do (typically without a conscious effort) but it also is a skill that will improve upon a readers close, attentive reading, critical thinking, reasoning and use of evidence, and comprehension and evaluation of a text – almost all of the skills emphasized in the reading portion of the Common Core. The best part is, I didn’t even know about the emphasis put on each of these skills when I planned my lesson. In almost any lesson, most teachers are already hitting these areas, so the Standards do not have to be at the forefront of planning in order to incorporate them.

Unfortunately, if a teacher does focus on the Standards, they could be damaging their students because “the Common Core deemphasizes reading as a personal act and emphasizes textual analysis.” This attitude in education is what drives students away from the pursuit of knowledge. When learning is more of a task than a pleasure, it’s no wonder that so many students refuse to pick up books. And, “contemporary children’s literature clearly takes a backseat to classics” in the Common Core which is unfortunate as in studies of “reading motivation and achievement” success in reading is most influenced by “ensuring the students had easy access to high-interest texts, and the second most influential factor was providing students with choice over what they would read.”   What’s also interesting is that the Standards really push for progress in text complexity, but “there is no evidence to suggest that raising the bar of text complexity in the primary grades will get students to the level of college and career readiness at the end of high school.” In fact, the converse may be true as “students end up holding books they cannot read” and therefore perceive themselves as unfit, poor readers – a detrimental attitude that clearly adversely impacts students.

On the bright side, “In the Common Core State Standards, … writing is treated as an equal partner to reading, and more than this, writing is assumed to be the vehicle through which a great deal of the reading work and reading assessments will occur.” Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman claim in the past writing has often been overlooked in education, which is disheartening to think about. Because of this, “the CCSS, then, return writing to its place as one of the basics of education.” But the good news ends there. The writing standards emphasize “three types of writing, the writing process, the quality of student writing, writing as integral even for very young students, writing across all disciplines and for real purposes” yet other forms of writing are left out. For example, in the Standards, “poetry is overlooked.” Also, the Standards “are calling for higher expectations in writing than those that have been commonplace” which means that what the Standards label as pristine pieces are not “the work that strong writers occasionally produce, but the work that all students should be expected to produce – and to produce regularly, with independence.” When in history has molding young people into similarly minded robots ever resulted in something good? Would never be an accurate response?

Perhaps out of all of the books laid out on that first day of classes in August I should have steered myself clear of this one. Although I did learn about the Common Core, my level of angst about it has risen exponentially. Maybe I should seek therapy from a taxi cab driver or a barber.

NCTE: Priceless

NCTE student membership: $25
Midnight Domino’s delivery split 4 ways: $7
Getting lost in the skywalk every time I left the hotel: 3+ hours of lost time
23 advanced copy books: $0
Learning more about teaching English: Priceless
There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s crippling debt.

Minneapolis was beautiful and NCTE was amazing. I shook hands with a homeless man; I learned that there are many women way more gifted than me who are able to get not only their bachelors, not only their masters, not only their Phd while married, but are able to raise kids and work full time too; I changed my definition of nonfiction; I got lost in the heart of the city (multiple times), I learned about high school writing centers; I got a picture with Laurie Halse Anderson; I got to hear stories about ‘Indian Jesus’; I discovered whenintime.com; and I greatly contributed to my future classroom library.

Probably my favorite part of attending NCTE was the session I went to on creating and maintaining writing centers. One of the women who was hosting the session founded her school’s writing center and was able to get a grant which funded an addition to the building which houses their writing center. Hearing her speak of all of her efforts to begin such a useful yet intimidating program was inspiring and daunting. However, it was uplifting to hear stories of students so eagerly giving their time and talent to their peers and what an impact these sacrifices make on the confidence and ability of young writers. It’s beautiful to be in rooms full of people passionate about education and English. If I can, I truly hope I can attend many more NCTE conferences.  (And hopefully it doesn’t actually put me in crippling debt.  I suppose if it does then it will fall under the ‘priceless’ category of my life.)