ETHOS

ETHOS

Thursday, June 15, 2017

"...anything that fairly excites our admiration expands us." - Thoreau


Though it's not packaged as "data," here's more evidence to support an inquiry-based classroom. The more a teacher is able to facilitate learning that stems from an area of, call it what you will- interest, admiration, curiosity- the more invested students will be in their learning, the more meaning you will construct in the classroom... the more you are ultimately equipping students to be interesting people that will expand society. Throw away your worksheets, people. No, wait, recycle.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Poetry and Protein

For National Poetry Month, here are my thoughts on poetry’s role in the classroom, featuring way too many food metaphors. For starters, can we agree that poetry is worthwhile? Novalis said, “poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.” A school with no poetry would be all method with no madness, right? Poetry offers poignant truth, beauty, and insight into what we all like to call “the human condition.” At some point, life’s cruel, absurd torchbearer has carelessly set us all ablaze, and the degree of our burns are as wicked and varied as any wildfire. Poetry can offer one of life’s kindest balms.

Poetry, in my opinion, is used most effectively in the classroom as seasoning, a garnish, or maybe even a dessert. When it is used as a main course, the waiter could become agitated at the diners’ complaints when the meal is not filling enough, or when they’re not sure how to ingest the course, or... maybe, after one bite, they discretely spit the poem into a napkin having wished they’d been able to order something else. Without some degree of variety and spontaneity your lesson is going to ultimately be as pointless as trying to explain how coffee, or asparagus, or organ meat is delightful to someone who reviles it. They won’t get it; heck they may even come to disdain you for it. Why not give students the freedom to explore poetry the way a novice chef might spin a spice rack, trying out different flavors and combinations? This, of course, necessitates an anthology. For American Literature, here is one of my favorites, loaded with wonderful poems, that isn’t going to break the budget at $2.70.

Now, you can also purchase a teaching unit to go with this book, however, in my opinion, worksheets should rarely be used with poems. While the intention of the worksheet may be wonderful, it always feels a bit too much like a survey card after a great meal: I’d much rather talk with someone about the food while I’m tasting it. I did once purchase a unit in correlation with this book, but usually we get through only a question or two before we’re stirring in other sources, personally relating, or gnawing on the poem’s inferred philosophical questions.

So some of you might be wondering- where’s the protein in this metaphor?!- and like so many armchair nutritionists you may become agitated at the notion of a meal with no obvious source of protein. Let me assuage your anxiety…. the protein is a classroom environment that encourages open-ended questions, speculation, personal connections, gravitas, and maybe a little bit of silliness. The amino acid of your enthusiasm will nourish novice poets and philosophers to speak up. This environment, of course, is in many ways much harder to pull off than simply buying a poetry anthology for $2.70… because, obviously, you must be sensitive enough love poetry for this to work, but thick-skinned enough to keep trying, even when it doesn’t.

Happy National Poetry Month, friends!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Interest Journals

Started in 2005, these interest journals have evolved from a few notebooks with titles in Sharpie, to a shelf full of vibrant (I hope) topics. They are fun to get students writing on a Monday. I have written at least a page in all of them, so it's also a way for students to get to know me better, and vice versa. One of the challenges is to stay up on the reading. I used to read every journal, every time. Now, not so much. I award participation points and plan to have students write their name and the title of the journal they wrote in to help create accountability. As it is, I have two rules for interest journaling: 1) sign your name and date your entry 2) keep it school appropriate. Occasionally I have to deal with "graffiti"... essentially someone trolling someone else's entry, but this is much rarer than I would have thought. Often students enjoy hearing the voices of the past.







Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Current State of Illiteracy...

So, normally I don't let things like this bother me, but this time it's personal...they've brought books into it. Can you believe there are enough people in the world (mostly American, I'm sure) that are so eager to buy a book full of blank pages that said book has catapulted to the #1 bestseller in books on Amazon, and is currently out of stock? I understood when 1984 sold out on Amazon, but this baffles me.  According to the US Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, there are 32 million illiterate adults in the US, and, I'm guessing, most of them have ordered this book. But seriously, 21% of the adults in the US read below a 5th grade level. The US Department of Justice states that "The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure." Obviously, I think reading is important... I've dedicated my life to reading and writing. I guess that's why the success of a book filled with blank pages irks me so much. We are a country that touts its ignorance. I know it's supposed to be a joke, and a dig at Democrats, but it's scary to me how a book that has no words in it has better reviews than any of Hemingway's books. I feel the need to quote Isaac Asimov... he said, "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way though our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'" The cult is taking over, it seems. Well, at least they're currently taking over book sales on Amazon. There's so much that divides us in this country... the distribution of wealth, religious beliefs, race, opinions on healthcare... but there is perhaps no gap more concerning to me than the literacy gap. There seems to be very little a person can do to convince someone who his hell-bent on never opening a book to do so. A great America is an America that reads.






Monday, March 6, 2017

Argumentation: Rogerian Theory using Immigration

The documentary series 30 Days, specifically the episode on "Immigration," shows the controvertial issue in a way that appeals to modern teen audiences. This episode, which you can stream for free on Vimeo here, shows two sides of the argument; Frank George is a "Minuteman" that travels to the border on a fairly regular basis with his 9mm pistol and .223 rifle to report illegals crossing over to US border patrol; George is a legal US immigrant from Cuba. Armida "Gonzalez" (the family asked that their real name not be used) is an illegal, immigrant teenager whose aspirations include going to Princeton and making it to States on her high school golf team. The documentary strives to show the issue from both sides in 2006-2007 US.

Here's where Rogerian theory comes in; after students have finished the documentary, ask them to write to either Armida or Frank.  The difficult part, at least initially, is that if they personally agree with Frank, they must write to Armida and vice versa. Good excuse to teach business letter format, also. The most challenging aspect is arriving at common ground.

Here's the assignment prompt:

Your letter should both articulate the opposing side's view in a way that is unbiased, objective and complete in its ability to match the holder's intensity, use of vocabulary, and give a nod to current controversy. It should strive to establish common ground. If necessary, do research to present an educated, realistic common ground.


Transcendentalist Theme: Simplicity

See the Lonely Island in the Classroom blogpost on how to introduce the theme of simplicity to teenagers.

Also, see the post and video on tiny home builder Austin Hay.



Sunday, March 5, 2017

Impromptu Stories

I want to break up these Transcendentalist posts with a little activity that has helped keep me afloat during many a lesson that ended prematurely, or with many a group that was hard to keep focused. It's simple and fun... if you're a storyteller, that is. Choose three students to each contribute a word (maybe these are the students that are hardest to keep focused). Write those words on the board. Encourage zaniness or "randomness." Example:

1. Squirrels
2. Wheelbarrow
3. Guitar

Now, narrate a story, out loud, that connects these three elements. It might go something like this:

I was out back playing my guitar one morning, really enjoying the new spring sunshine, lazily picking notes and putting off spreading the mulch that sat in a pile on a tarp, off to one side. My wife hollered out, "I'm going grocery shopping; I'd like the mulch spread by the time I get back." I looked over at the locked shed where I kept my wheelbarrow and shovel. I had no idea where the key to that old rusty lock was, but I said, "Of course, dear." I kept picking the notes. Now, one benefit of playing the guitar out back is that for some reason, when I play the blues, the squirrels in the neighborhood all come into the big chestnut tree in the back yard. They sit like trained seals and listen. I swear. Today I was feeling good from the spring sunshine, so I picked out a particularly inspired blues tune. Sure enough, the squirrels came. There were gray ones, red ones, even a few black ones. My wife doesn't like the squirrels; "they they eat all the chestnuts, and then we don't get any," (she loves chestnuts), so it's almost as if they knew she was gone, because there had to be a hundred up in that tree. So I picked and picked. More came. So I sang, "my wife she don't know me / today's the day / she wants me to work / and I'd much rather play / the mulch is high / my voice is low / she wants me to shovel / but I say no / that mulch can sit there / that mulch can wait / the sunshine won't last / that's all our fate / so while we're alive / let's sit and play / the work can wait / for another day..." and on and on like that. And do you know what? Those squirrels, bit by bit started spreading that mulch while I played and played. Like a street musician pulling pocket change from passer-bys these squirrels bit by bit took the strips of mulch in their tiny hands and jaws and spread it like a well-oiled, albeit furry, machine. By the time I had run out of lyrics they had spread all of the mulch into the flower beds. "You guys did a great job," I said, beaming. "Wait here." I went inside and pulled down the large bowl of chestnuts we'd managed to harvest late last summer into the fall. There were quite a few. I'd daresay enough for each squirrel to have one. So, I took it out back and like a clown in a parade, threw handfuls of chestnuts to my helpers. They took their prize and went just as I heard the car pull into the driveway. I went out front to help my wife bring in the groceries. She said, " you don't look very sweaty." I said, "it's all done." She looked skeptical, but she loved the mulch! She hugged me and we went back inside to put away the groceries. "Hand me down that bowl of chestnuts," she said. "I think it's time we should roast some to enjoy." 

"About that..." I started, giving my most winning smile.    

So if you're full of hot air, like me, and like telling stories, try mesmerizing your class with this activity by coming up with something off the top of your head, like the above example. Or better yet, let them give it a try for themselves. Finally, you could adapt it to class writing and then have them read what they came up with.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Transcendentalist Themes: Nature and Non-Conformity

Forewarning, this post is going to be like a weird version of A Christmas Carol with babies, crying indians, and guys with  perms laying down difficult truths with uncanny, albeit perhaps computer generated, savor faire. Cool? Okay, just so we're on the same page be sure to click this link and listen while you read. If you've never seen the video, you might want to...

And mute the ads please. "Someone's always playing corporation games." Thanks. Now, crank the bass until the windows rattle.

Okay, now we can hang.

First, recognize that art will say more with zero words than you're capable of saying in an entire class period. Once you realize this, USE ART IN YOUR CLASSROOM. In order to prime students for Emerson's ideas in "Nature," spend some time exploring Thomas Cole's series titled "The Voyage of Life."

Use all four paintings. They're awesome. Luxuriate in exploring their details together. For purposes of brevity I'll get to the point here.

Childhood:


See that baby tweaking out on a lush bed of thick vegetation? That's you. That's how tight you used to be with greenery.

So how did we get here?


That's right... a crying Indian with a load of litter across his moccasins. Good question.

Perhaps we should jump ahead to what happens in adulthood... shall we?


Oh, snap! Look at that!  The vegetation has been swapped for a bunch of stupid, materialistic crap, like silks, gold, double mortgages, trophy wives, etc. In other words, this home boy is "knee deep in the hoopla / sinking in [his] fight"  It seems as if Emerson's opening lines carry literal weight... "To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child." So it seems that when our priorities shift from a connection with nature to an emphasis on worldly goods, our lives grow desperate... The Transcendentalists would agree: "In the woods, we return to reason and to faith."

So take your students into the woods. Okay, that sounds creepy. I mean, go outside, will ya?

When we go outside for the first time and tramp all around a few students always claim that it's something they never would have done at their sending school. "At _______ school, the kids would have been running for the fence, etc." Despite these highly unlikely outcomes the students use to exaggerate the lesser appetizing aspects of their sending schools, what we're doing is, with the exception of maybe environmental science class, kind of non-conformist...

Speaking of non-conformity... "macaroni plays the mamba," WTF? Hahahaha!

Emerson's essay "Self Reliance" relies on your students' understanding of the terms "conformity and non-conformity." Maybe 20% of my students have these words floating around in their schema; so what to do with the other 80%? I find value in these teaching aids.

Collins Street at 5 pm by John Brack.


Immediately students see conformity. Lives full of "quiet desperation." Heck, "it's just another Sunday, (okay probably Monday) in a tired old street." Spend some time asking students what they see. Let them tell you.

If this isn't enough, I like to use a few different children's books. Some that work well are Dr. Seuss' The Sneetches, and Jonathan Allen's The Little Rabbit who Liked to Say Moo. The former is great because it shows how we can get hung up on superficial differences, while the latter is excellent for audience participation. Have the kids make the loudest barnyard noises they are capable of making. And if you really want to indulge individuality, encourage them to make the one noise that makes them unique. Do it loudly.


As before, ask students to poach three direct quotes from the essay that deal with the concept of conformity / non-conformity. If some students are still fuzzy on the concept this scene from Dead Poet's Society should seal the deal.

What is America?! We're a country of rebels, for crying out loud, striving for the best way to live! Even Abe gets down!

I feel like the Transcendentalists were total rockstars; the original rebels with a cause. They offer us a portrait of hope for the future of America. Without them Rock and Roll might have never been invented! We need them!

As for us English teachers, "Don't tell us you need us, because we're the simple fools / Looking for America, coming through your schools."




Monday, February 27, 2017

Transcendentalist Theme: Moral Agency

I will post a series of lessons for breaking down the Transcendentalists' ideas into real-world concepts.  "Civil Disobedience" is the piece we read after finishing The Crucible. I believe it is a natural progression; students remember this line from Elizabeth explaining John Proctor: "The magistrate sits in your heart that judges you." We come to understand John has a strong conscience, and by the end of the play ripping up his confession could be seen as an act of civil disobedience. We talk about this. I ask for real world examples; students struggle coming up with them. So, we watch this recreation of Stanley Milgram's experiment to test obedience to authority, and moral agency.

After watching, students are usually horrified that 9 of the 12 "teachers" go through with the entire experiment, delivering 450 volts to the "learner." We talk about who is at fault: the teacher who flips the switch or the professor who tells the teacher to flip the switch. Most students by now see where this is going and recognize that the little judge that sits in your heart takes precedent over the big judge that sits in one of those leather-clad chairs with buttons... who might enforce something like, oh, say, segregation laws. If you're brave you could bring up travel bans... There is usually one student that thinks the professor should be at fault, because the teacher was just doing what they were told to do. Sometimes, from here, we go on to talk about war crimes, Nazism, and just to keep it light, Bug's Life. Why Bug's Life? Well, Hopper has some words of advice for Princess Atta (who, next to Vanellope, is one of the only Disney Princesses I like):

First rule of leadership: "everything is your fault." We go on to reason that we all want to be in charge of our own lives; those of us in positions of power, in charge of the lives of others, should take responsibility for our actions. "We learned this in kindergarten," someone might say. Indeed. So, why is it hard?

For some it may be hard to admit fault; for others maybe they feel like they don't deserve their success. After a bit of speculation we narrow the big scary concept of civil disobedience down to "taking responsibility for your own actions." From there I ask students to find three (rationale: once is random, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern) quotes from "Civil Disobedience" that relate back to moral agency, or as we said, taking responsibility for your actions.

From there we read MLK's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and attempt to pair three more direct quotes with those taken from civil disobedience. Once we do this, I teach students how to write a synthesis/analysis paragraph. Because this can be challenging, I use the following graphic to coach them on how to structure it.

It is important to emphasize that students should choose the pairing of quotes they feel they will be able to explain the best. Here's one we did in class:

Postscript: perhaps the most compelling lines from MLK's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" are "An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority... An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal."

Modern implications? 

That's up to you. 



Saturday, February 25, 2017

Walden and Climate Change

A byproduct of writing a nature journal along with Thoreau's Walden is that my students and I now have a record of when plants bloomed, etc. According to scholars, one of Walden's many benefits is that it chronicles the onset of spring in 19th century Concord, Massachusetts. Some have used this record to highlight factors that could be interpreted as indicative of climate change. This NPR article shows just what I mean. There have also been books written about how Walden provides evidence for climate change.  Which, say what you want about climate change, I tend to side with the scientists. On Friday I took this picture, the first leaf of spring in Northeast Ohio (or at least, the first one I have found), outside the school. It was 75 degrees on February 25, 2017.

At the time I was thinking it was just a neat picture I could use in a nature journal... then I thought maybe, culturally, we should really start paying attention to this kind of stuff. I decided to go back into my nature journal and compare dates. For instance here is the first green shoots coming out of the ground at our house two years ago:


I took this picture on February 19, 2017:


Now, I've never claimed to be good with numbers, but I believe this same plant is blooming significantly earlier in 2017 than in 2015. Apparently Thoreau noted that the first open flower of highbush blueberry opened May 1, 1853 in Massachusetts. According to the NPR article, the same plant is blooming in the first week of April. At the Skarl house, the first flower of spring in 2015 opened March 24:


Well, based on the picture I just took roughly ten minutes ago, and the fat buds that are already forming, the first flower of spring at the Skarl house in 2017 will probably be about a month earlier than that of 2015:


I suppose I could get all political. Instead, I think I'll just drop a link and call it a day.  Eh, maybe just one more... okay, last one...


Update: photo taken March 8, 2017






Thursday, February 23, 2017

NCTE Recognizes


I got this in the mail today at school. It appears that NCTE recognizes me as a High School English Professor! Hahahahahaha! To my knowledge I invented this title for an article about my teaching called "Double Play: Notes from a High School English Professor." The article appeared in the inaugural issue of Crosspol, which is a really great journal for and about writing teachers. Check out Colin and Andrew on Facebook and see what they're up to now. They're doing some great work for education. Word y'all!