No need to raise your seat back: What happens when teachers lose sight of the destination

The man sits asleep, mouth agape in his window seat as the flight attendant stops by and gingerly taps him on the shoulder.
“Sir,” says the flight attendant, “We’ll be landing soon, and I need you to put your seat up.”
“I can’t,” says the passenger, “Whenever I try, it just falls back down. I think it’s broken.”
“You need to press the button,” says the flight attendant.
“I did. It just keeps falling.” He demonstrates.
“Well, can you put up the seat beside you,” says the flight attendant as he walks away.
The passenger is suggesting someone might want to report the broken seat, but the flight attendant has already moved on.
The entire scene is reminiscent of many teachers’ approach to students and what they have decided are the correct behaviors.
Anyone who has ever traveled by air knows the vehemence with which flight attendants insist passengers put their seat backs and tray tables in the full upright position.
So too might anyone who observes an American classroom note the force with which many teachers insist students follow exacting classroom procedures and practices. Students must submit their homework at a given time, tests must be completed within a certain interval, essays must be formatted according to set parameters. In many cases, if any of these standards is not met, the work will not be accepted. The students will not be cleared for landing.
Teachers are tripping over procedures with little regard to their intended destinations.
Certainly, it is important for a student to learn the lesson of submitting work in a timely manner. At the same time the tardiness of work should not mean a student’s effort up to that point be disregarded.
Why, then, do many teachers impose such draconian measures in their classrooms? They do it for the same reasons many flight attendants insist on upright seats, not because it is imperative for the landing of the plane, but because it is one of the few things still within their control.
If teaching is entirely dependent on others listening and observing instruction and then internalizing it, there is little wonder teachers might savor any element of control they can find when faced with limp success rate of much traditional teaching.
One option, the option of which we are loud proponents, is to keep the intended destination in mind when responding to the idiosyncracies of student behaviors and accepting successes while working to improve upon failures. This is not easy.
Our flight attendant, too, struggled with keeping the destination in mind. If seat back position is important to the operation of the plane, he would have done well to listen to the passenger and report the defunct chair. Ignoring it now means he and subsequent flight attendants will wage constant battle with that seat when a few moments of focused attention could save mountains of frustration.
Teachers too could learn from this piece of the story. Punishing the student who has formatted his essay incorrectly without taking the time to help the student develop a plan for avoiding the error in the future only insures headaches down the road.
Failing to appreciate the work that’s been done while simultaneously punishing the annoyance without working toward a solution leads to something educators are particularly adept at – admiring the problem.

Great American Novel-Off ’10 Explained

The Gist:

  • I wanted to try something other than the traditional teaching of a novel in class.
  • I wanted my students to think intertextually about what they were reading.
  • We tried the Great American Novel-Off 2010.
  • I will be doing it again next year.

The Whole Story:

This will be two posts. I’ll be reflecting in the next post. For right now, here’s what happened.

Each of my students in G11  was assigned The Great Gatsby to read on a schedule of their own with a set endpoint for the reading.

While they were reading, we discussed what constitutes the “Great American Novel.” What qualities would one expect? We looked at this Newsweek article on Ellison’s Invisible Man. We related discussions to the unit they’d completed on The American Dream in history class.

By the time we reached the endpoint for Gatsby, we were ready to draft our class qualifiers of the GAN. Each student came up with 10. Then, they got into groups of 4 and narrowed their collective 40 down to 10. Then, each group shared out what they thought to be the most important from its 10. We narrowed and finessed until we had a class 10.

As I’ve two G11 sections, this meant each section drafted similar but different qualifier lists.

Earth Stream:

  • American Concepts/Values/Goals
  • Realistic
  • Timeless
  • Relatable
  • Controversial
  • Self-Realization
  • Morals need to be questioned
  • Inspiring
  • Suspense
  • Diversity

Water Stream:

  • Relatable
  • Powerful Storyline
  • Timeless
  • Memorable
  • Reflective
  • Controversial
  • Life Lessons
  • Relating to American Culture
  • Says something about society
  • Emotionally stimulating

Again, similar, but not the same. We drafted the qualifiers Friday. Monday, the students received their book group assignments. With the exception of one group of students in each section, every student was assigned one of the 8 contenders for the title of GAN.

My intern, Hannah, and I worked to place students in groups where we thought they’d be both challenged and successful (not to mention interested in the content of their books).

Monday, they were able to make one and only one trade of books after doing a little research.

Then, we moved on. In their groups, they divided up the qualifiers and decided who would be tracking evidence of each throughout their novels.

They had three weeks to read their books.

Part of class time over those three weeks was given to reading. Part was group collaboration. The other part was dedicated to lessons on literary theory. Particularly, we examined the Gender (AKA Feminist), New Historicist, and Socioeconomic (AKA Marxist) lenses. To help me structure this, I turned to Deborah Appleman’s Critical Encounters in High School English. My professional library is all the better for its inclusion.

By the end of the three weeks, the groups were to build their cases for why each of there books best exemplified the GAN based on the class’ qualifiers.

As they compiled their evidence, each team posted their findings to an open Moodle forum so they could build counter-arguments. (Here’s a great example of what they did.) We talked about the idea of discovery in a trial situation and the goal of building the strongest case, not the most surprising. Some resistance here.

Two weeks ago, the cases started.

In Round One, each team had 10 minutes for opening statements, then 5 minutes of direct Q&A between the two, then 5-10 minutes of Q&A from my intern and me including questions submitted on note cards by students viewing the case.

For Round Two, each side had 5 minutes to open, with the same structure for Q&A.

Round Three, had the 5-minute openers, and the same Q&A with viewing students allowed to ask their questions directly.

In the final round, the winning challenger went up against Gatsby for title of GAN. As it was Gatsby’s first showing, the Gatsby groups got the original 10-minute opening time.

While viewing each case, students completed an evidence sheet documenting the evidence provided by each group as well as any relevant notes.

Starting Monday, each student will turn in a 2-3 page majority paper and a 2-3 page minority paper. Basic position papers, the majority paper will outline the reasons they agree with one of the rulings throughout the whole process. The minority papers will explain why they disagree with one ruling in the process.

My instructions on the papers:

  • Google how to write a position paper.
  • Use evidence you saw/heard during the case.
  • Include evidence posted on the forums.

On the Selection of the Novels:

I wasn’t quite sure how to do this. So, here’s how it ended up.

Initially, for one week, I published and asked others to forward on a Google Form asking “What is the Great American Novel?” followed by, “If you’d like to make your case, do it below.”

One hundred forty people responded.

From that 140, I took the top 8 most popular nominees. Noting the top 8 were decidedly white and male, a random sampling of SLA teachers spent over two hours after school one Friday debating what other 8 novels should be in the Sweet 16.

The Final 16 were:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  2. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  3. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  4. Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  5. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  6. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  7. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  8. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  9. Native Son by Richard Wright
  10. The Street by Ann Petry
  11. Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
  12. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  13. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  14. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Dîaz
  15. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie
  16. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The 16 were posted and pushed out as a new google form asking respondents to indicate their first and second choices. After a week, each first-choice vote earned a novel 2 pts. while a second-place vote earned it 1 pt.

Three hundred thirty-seven votes later, the top 8 became the contenders:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird
  2. The Catcher in the Rye
  3. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  4. East of Eden
  5. Invisible Man
  6. On the Road
  7. Little Women
  8. Slaughterhouse Five

And there it was.

In the next post:

  • How it went.
  • Student reaction.
  • Changes for next year.

Putting a Great American (novel) to the Test

The Gist:

  • My G11 students will start reading The Great Gatsby soon.
  • I’m not the biggest fan.
  • I’m thinking about putting the book on trial for slander / libel against other books.
  • I’m looking for suggestions.

The Whole Story:

One of the things I noted at the end of my last post was the importance of nailing my approach when I have my students reading a common text again. That will get underway come March. One of the anchor texts in our G11 English curriculum is The Great Gatsby. The theme for the G11 year is Change, so Gatsby certainly works. The thing is, I’m not a huge fan. Truly.

In all honesty, I made it through high school without encountering what many people (English teachers especially) count as the pinnacle of American letters. Not until my first unit whilst student teaching did I come into contact with Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. In subsequent readings, I’ve found value in the book, but it doesn’t make me feel weak in the knees.

I see overlap and relevance in the text, but I’m hesitant to be another English teacher unpacking this book and making my students understand the symbolism of all those damned shirts.

Here’s the thinking:

  • Every student in the class reads Gatsby.
  • In small groups, the majority of the students (minus a Gatsby group), read one other text per group.
  • Each of the other groups build a case for how their text is equal to or better than Gatsby, thereby proving claims of Gatsby’s place as the ultimate American novel as slanderous and libelous.
  • The Gatsby group is given a heads up by the other groups as they read on what passages of the other books will be important in making the case against Gatsby and the Gatsby group reads those passages.

This all culminates with a trial or debate which I’m envisioning as something similar to a class action suit.

Here are my trepidations / questions:

  • Is a trial / debate played out?
  • Should the other texts have a common theme such as “the American dream?”
  • Do I select other texts from across all time periods?
  • Does this pass the authentic learning muster?

I’ve been mulling this one over for quite some time. I’m writing about it here, before the fact, because I’m looking to cast a wider brainstorming net.


Weighty Words

One of my Grade 12 Students, Bre Bonner, brought me her copy of Eclipse today. As she handed it to me, I observed the relative ease with which I was able to hold it. This led me to pick up some other texts in the room and head down to the physics room. They have all sorts of cool toys. What’s below illustrates what I found.

Here are the standings:


Pg. #



The Norton Anthology of Poetry 4th Ed. edited by Ferguson, Margaret, Mary Jo Salter, Jon Stallworthy


3.1 lbs.


Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer


1.3 lbs.


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling


2.1 lbs.


And, before you ask, I checked, the average length of a full line of text in Eclipse is a little over 3.75″. In Harry Potter, it’s approximately 4.25″.

There’s an easy joke to be made about the literal and figurative weights of these texts measuring up, but I won’t make it.

Why, though, is Eclipse comparable in size to these other texts, but weighing in nearly one and two pounds lighter than Harry Potter and Norton respectively?

Forget anything with an electric charge, let’s work this media literacy first.

And they protested Harry Potter?

The Gist:

Twilight Saga =

Cycle of Abuse

The Whole Deal:

I bought my younger sister Kirstie her copy of Breaking Dawn for her birthday. She was 15. It’s a hard life having an older brother as an English teacher – you’re pretty much guaranteed books as gifts for the rest of your life. She didn’t seem to mind. I would have bought my elder younger sister her copy too, but she was 18 when it came out and went with her friend to the midnight book release.

Today, I feel guilty.

I just got back from New Moon.

No other film in recent memory has reassured me of the necessity of my job teaching students to read texts critically.

I’ve stayed away from reading the Twilight series beyond the first chapter of the first book. It didn’t engage me (read – it was poorly written), and so I opted out.

I don’t remember seeing the first film. I remember leaving and thinking it was bad. I chalked it up to Melissa Rosenberg‘s writing or Catherine Hardwicke‘s directing.

Having seen New Moon, I realize I might have been wrong.

This series is dangerous.

If you’re in the dark, here’s the deal.

Girl falls for guy she can’t have. He can’t resist her. If he gets her, he’ll kill her. They decide to make a go of it. Things go badly, she sits in her room staring catatonically out the window for what the audience is told is three months. Somewhere after the three months, her father steps in and suggests that this behavior is possibly unhealthy. She takes his advice and decides to engage in risky behavior. Whilst beginning to engage in said behavior, she strikes up a relationship with a new guy. He promises to be different than Guy 1,  “I know what he did to you but Bella, I want you to know I will never hurt you.” Turns out she can’t have that guy either. Guy one breaks his promise:

I swore I wasn’t going to get mad, no matter what you said to me. But… I just got so upset that I was going to lose you… that you couldn’t deal with what I am…

Jacob Black, New Moon, Chapter 13, p.312

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Now, I don’t deny Twilight its right to exist. What I wish I could deny are early studio reports that New Moon has the third largest opening in Hollywood history.

Judging only by audience reactions as the movie unfolded, we’ve got cause for worry. Few, if any, of my fellow theatergoers were experiencing the same churning stomachs as I.

Twilight to Girls: By being who you are, you make it hard for boys to resist what they want to do to you.

Girls to Twilight: Awwwwww.

Twilight to Boys: Girls will tempt you to lose control just by being themselves. Make sure you let them know they are leading you to lose control and that losing control will result in them losing their beauty, their souls and / or their lives.

Boys to Twilight: Cool…vampires.

We need to be teaching this book – or at least teaching our students to read this book with questions in their minds.

As I understand it, Girl becomes a vampire at the end of it all. She gets married, of course. So, once she’s lost herself, she loses her soul.

According to author Stephenie Meyer:

Breaking Dawn‘s cover [a queen chess piece] is a metaphor for Bella’s progression throughout the entire saga. She began as the weakest (at least physically, when compared to vampires and werewolves) player on the board: the pawn. She ended as the strongest: the queen. In the end, it’s Bella that brings about the win for the Cullens.

And all it costs her is her soul, her life and individuality.

“You’re overestimating my self-control.” I know the feeling.

If you happen to be in Philly…

This has been living on the ‘Book for a while now, but I figured I might as well give it a shout here as well:

You are invited to come join six local teachers as they read from their co-authored book-Teaching Hope. (***currently #33 on the NYTimes Best-Seller List***)

Host: Philly FW Teachers

Date: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2009

Time: 6 – 7 PM

Place: Borders Books, 1 S. Broad St. Philadelphia, PA

Books are $14.99, paperback. All proceeds benefit the Freedom Writers Foundation that continues to train teachers in innovative, tried and true learning methods as well as continuing to sponsor continuing education for worthy and deserving students.

“Think of that teacher, that one teacher—the one who made the difference, who saw you and pushed you to find out who you wanted to become. This book is written by 150 people who attempt to be that teacher in the lives of their students, every day.” Thus begins TEACHING HOPE: Stories from the Freedom Writer Teachers and Erin Gruwell; Foreword by Anna Quindlen (Broadway Books, September 2009; Trade Paperback Original). Marking the 10th anniversary of the New York Times #1 bestseller The Freedom Writers Diary, Erin Gruwell has gathered a merry, mixed band of fighters—150 teachers from across the United States and Canada trained in the Freedom Writers Method—to tell their stories of teaching students in and out of traditional classrooms and, just maybe, change the world.


One of the best books about teaching I’ve ever read is Holler If You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students by Gregory Michie.

I didn’t read it until three years after I’d started teaching, and I needed it. In Holler…, Michie examines his teaching career in Chicago public schools and his attempt to connect with his kids in a way that is honest and frank without losing optimism.

Michie’s updates on former students helped me the most. As he wrote about catching up with them years down the road, not all of them were successful, not all of them had made their way to a better life.

I was teaching at Phoenix Academy in Sarasota, FL when I read Holler. At Phoenix, we recruited the lowest achieving students in the district and offered them smaller class sizes and intensive non-traditional instruction with the goal of moving them toward grade level and a successful transition to a traditional high school.

As you can imagine, it was a tough fight with many losing battles. Michie’s book was helpful because it helped me to redefine what success meant in education. Here was a guy who had made many attempts similar to the ones I was making at Phoenix, finding out he hadn’t saved everyone, and still remaining optimistic about his profession.

I bring this up because August 18 another book about teaching appeared in book stores across North America. The book is entitled Teaching Hope: Stories from the Freedom Writer Teachers, and I helped write it.

The book is by 150 teachers from across North America. Every state is represented as well as several provinces in Canada and teachers from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

It’s not a how-to. In fact, it’s far from it. You’ll find no lesson plans or new pedagogical approaches within its pages.

It’s also not about teacher martyrdom or teacher messiahs. Yes, there are moments of success and moments or failure, but they sit alongside one another – as do the moments in a school year.

It’s not meant to preach or presume to have the answers. In the end of one entry, when a teacher asks a student whether he will attempt suicide again, the answer is simply, “Yes.” I don’t know what to do with that.

I hope that it is three things:

1) I hope it is a window for those outside of teaching into many facets of education that doesn’t try to be what Tom Moore or Dan Meyer hate about teaching movies, but instead offers something more complex.

2) I hope it is a conduit of connection for teachers who read it.

3) I hope it is a catalyst toward increasing community involvement in education.

As of today, Teaching Hope is #33 on the New York Times Best Sellers List for Paperback Nonfiction. I hope the people who put it there are finding what I found in Holler.