Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Monopolization of Technology by All the Testing: A View From Inside

This week, for the first time in my career, I proctored a standardized test on computers. It wasn't a positive experience. It took nearly an hour and much trial and error to set up each student with a working computer with a working test program, and there were some hiccups throughout with computers resetting and interrupting testing. But we got through it relatively unscathed, and, judging from the confidence the kids exuded afterwards, I bet they did pretty well.

But that was just 30 kids, in one computer lab, taking one assessment. Our school has hundreds of kids per grade level, and only three computer labs available for testing (the others have Technology classes in them). Our library computer lab is also being monopolized by testing. For weeks, in fact, these computers have been dominated by testing: first the PARCC, and now the HSA. Each day, faculty receives e-mails about which students will be testing, and are informed that computer labs will be unavailable. This has been much of the 2nd semester. Our testing coordinators have been working hard to create testing schedules and opportunities for the students to be assessed, but the effect of requiring all the testing be online means that the use of computer labs for actual learning has gone by the wayside. Our 9th grade team can't do the Persepolis research project we have done in past years; my colleagues in Drama and Social Studies have similar stories of the inability to use computer labs for research, projects, word processing, Excel, or anything else. The other effect is that each class period, for a tested grade level, teachers will be missing either a handful or a boatload of kids who happen to be in the section of another subject that happens to be tested that day.

Yesterday, I met with a colleague from a different high school in a different part of town. Her situation is the same. For the entire year, she and her colleagues have been unable to use computers for actual learning. They are used every day for testing. In schools and districts without much technology, computer labs are shifting from tools of learning to tolls of assessment only.

This isn't how it was supposed to be. According to The Washington Post, then-Governor O'Malley asked Dr. Lillian Lowery what the challenge was with IT. After a long pause, she said, "It's the testing, not the IT."

But this isn't the case in Baltimore City Public Schools. In past years, the week of HSA testing -- all done on paper -- was completed in four days. These days were disruptive to instruction, but they were contained. With the new model of testing on computers, assessment from the PARCC and HSA has shifted the breadth of state testing from a contained week to endless weeks, even months, of testing and a drastic interruption to instruction.

During the week of the Baltimore Uprising, our 9th grade team had a two-day field trip (half the students on one day, the other half on the other) to see Romeo and Juliet at the new Chesapeake Shakespeare Company downtown. Our students were so excited about the trip, which was part of our syllabi we passed out in August and part of our summative assessment for the unit (students were going to be asked to compare the performance of their assigned monologue with their own performance choices). However, due to testing on technology, we were ultimately unable to go.

The reason for this is because that week, after the uprising, our CEO (smartly, I think, based upon what was known at the time) canceled all field trips that week (ours was scheduled for Thursday and Friday), and, while the CSC was willing to reschedule with us, we couldn't, because every day after that point had students testing.  And this is not an isolated problem. The testing schedule (due to limited technology) at our school has made many field trips, class performances, and other educational opportunities either impossible or extremely difficult. Testing on technology has spread out the testing season from one week to months-long, making it feel relentless and affecting many aspects of actual pedagogy and instruction.

I'm not sure how schools in more wealthy school systems, like Montgomery County or Harford County, are dealing with this testing and technology situation. I assume their computer-to-pupil ratio is much higher than ours in Baltimore City; however, I also assume that this monopolization of computer labs for the purposes of testing does indeed impact instruction of students statewide. In Baltimore City, though, this is an infrastructure and technology problem, which creates a scheduling problem and a monumental instructional problem.

So, when you hear educators talking about the testing culture, it's not just the fact that we're testing a lot. I actually think the Common Core is a solid educational platform and think the PARCC is a vast improvement over the HSA, at least in English. But the technology is a problem, and it's made the testing culture much more impactful and deleterious on actual education.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Baltimore Struggles Hard, but We Love Harder

A reader sent me an e-mail earlier this past week, wondering when I was going to write about the Baltimore Uprising, but I've struggled with what to say. We all feel like we're living in a historic moment, and sometimes it's hard to pull back and gain perspective when you're living in it. Add onto the fact that all this came during the last week of instruction of my seniors, and the last full week of coaching baseball, and it's even more challenging to take a step back from the situation to allow the proper space to write about it. The week has simply been an emotional and exhausting blur. That being said, others have written about it, like my Baltimore City Public Schools colleague Sean Martin, and very well. Honestly I don't have that much to add beyond what he wrote there.
Prayer circle at Penn-North on Tuesday. That's me in the middle with colleagues and players.
I do want to write a bit about this week though, this last week of April 2015, which I believe will live on for decades. Like many around the country, from my place of white privilege I have been disgusted by cases like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, all young Black men gunned down under the assumption that they are dangerous. When I see photos of these young men, I see my students, and I think about how they are viewed by society, and it breaks my heart. It probably makes sense that Baltimore, which has had tense relationships with police for decades, would be the site of the next tragic showdown between a young black man and police. Watching the video of Freddie Gray was one of the most gut-wrenching experiences I've ever had, mostly for the sound of his wail; since his legs didn't appear to be working when he went into the police van, I'm among those who believe that his fatal injury -- or at least the start to it -- occurred outside. That means it feels like this video is an actual video of a murder.

Now, be clear: not only was my dad a police officer for 25 years (and still works in law enforcement), along with a cousin, but I'm good friends with a couple Baltimore City police officers, including a Baltimore City school police officer who I respect a lot who I have worked alongside for nearly a decade. In addition, I coached two Baltimore City police officers when they were in high school and I remain in touch with them both; both have visited me on the baseball field this year to see how this year's team is doing, one in full uniform. I think being a police officer is a very hard job, one that isn't rewarded with much respect or financial gains (like teachers), and I'm in no way anti-police.
Some of my players and colleague helping with cleanup.
But, like Marilyn Mosby, who comes from five generations of police and whose both parents are police, I can both support police officers as well as hold bad police officers accountable. I'm not absolutely sure if the police officer in the Michael Brown or Tamir Rice cases were guilty of murder. What I am absolutely sure about, though, is that they should have had a trial in court, and the family of their victims deserved it even more. When decisions seem like they're being made by one Prosecuting Attorney rather than an open adversarial trial, it just feels sneaky; it feels like an extension of decades of racist practices by the courts and justice system. So Friday's news -- a sign that the police officers who snuffed the life out of a young man would be held accountable -- felt like a start to justice. I don't know how active or passive the roles of the police officers charged were in the death of Freddie Gray, but it's clear they all bear some responsibility (some, it appears from the charges and description, more than others), and all showed an indifference to the human life that was extinguishing before them. I don't want those kinds of people as police in my city.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. On Monday, the day of Freddie Gray's funeral, a strange, mournful, and nervous energy encapsulated the school in a way I'd never experienced. There was some sort of internet rumor of violence happening at 3pm, and this rumor spread like wildfire throughout the student body, and parents pulled their students from school throughout the day. I've heard this happened at other schools around the system, and we were told that the threat wasn't credible. The bus came to pick the team and I up at 1:30 p.m. for our away doubleheader which began at 2:45, and, frankly, I was glad to be gone for the day away from the strange energy of the school.

Groups of citizens helping with cleanup.
During the game, occasionally I glanced at my phone, and saw some news updates about UMBC and other colleges closing early because of protesters, but I thought they were just being overly cautious, and I was coaching so didn't investigate much. There were definitely times during the game when it seems liked a lot of police cars were going by, but, because the game was being played at Clifton Park, alongside a main road (Harford Rd.), I didn't think that much of it.

We arrived back at school at around 7:30, and it was a ghost town. We were locked out of the building. Eventually, I spoke with the Assistant Principal, who told me not to worry about getting inside the building and to just get the kids home. After I did that -- waiting for the West Baltimore parents to come get their kids and dropping four kids off around east Baltimore -- I headed home to start reading about the news.

At home, I watched videos and read posts for hours, becoming sadder and angrier as I watched, but I eventually got inspired by a few posts -- including one by my former student, Robert A. Douglas -- and made plans to head out into the city the next morning (school had already been canceled due to concerns for safety) to help with the rebuilding efforts. I put it on Facebook, and invited my baseball team. Friends in DC made a bunch of sandwiches for the effort and dropped them off in the morning on my way out.
An ebullient hug as the news is announced.
The discovery, on the way to the cleanup early on Tuesday morning, that my car window (as well as several others on the block) was smashed was a bit of a surprise -- we heard some rioters got to the Erdman Shopping Center, but most of the rioting was miles away from out house -- but it just momentarily deterred us. We vacuumed up the glass and headed to the Liberty Recreational Center, where we heard there were some kids who needed some food since schools were closed. We played some basketball with them, then heard about a homeless teen shelter that needed some supplies after vandalism the day before, and Robert took some of the donations over there while we went to the Penn-North area to assist with further cleanup.
My broken window on Tuesday morning. Cost me $340 to fix.
We headed out to the Penn-North area to help with cleanup, but much of it was done by that time, but we helped where we could. My students wore their jersies -- an idea one of them had so we wouldn't be mistaken for rioters -- and we walked around, seeing all the people cleaning up, sharing food and water, praying, singing, and being part of a community, and it felt incredible. I went to a couple of other community meetings that day, as well; all showed Baltimore coming together to show the national media and each other that we are a community ready for change and healing.

That day around Baltimore with my students, colleagues, and friends was so amazing that it reminded me how Baltimore is a city that comes together and perseveres. I looked forward to getting back to the routine of teaching and coaching the next day, and yearned for improvement to a system that devalues Black lives and leads to the frustration and despair that we had seen the last couple of days. Indeed, Baltimore struggles hard, but we love harder -- something that we will need as we move forward  in healing and justice.

I've been living in Baltimore for nearly 15 years now, longer than I have any other city. Returning to my great kids on Wednesday and Thursday after being engaged in the community cleanup was exactly what my soul needed.
This is why I'll always teach James Baldwin. So prescient.

No one was expecting the news on Friday that came from Marilyn Mosby. It was towards the end of 3rd period, during my very last class with the Class of 2015 (they take their IB exams starting on Monday), when a colleague came in to tell me that Mosby was announcing a "laundry list" of charges against the officers and that she was choked up about it. I told the students, and we all started looking at our Twitter accounts for the news; I then fumbled to my computer and LCD screen to turn on WBAL. By that point, Mosby's press conference was nearing an end, and Jayne Miller soon began reporting. The bell rang, students slowly filed out, happy. The next group came in, and I was able to capture two jubilant kids hugging in front of the screen. We continued to watch the news reports for the first part of class, all impressed with Mosby's poise and her firm stance on justice. I played the entire press conference for my 9th grade classes later in the day; you could hear a pin drop as they saw the young confident woman deliver her speech that, for the first time we've seen in recent years it seems, holds officers accountable for their treatment of a young Black man.

We're still a long way to go, and I'm certain we will have tumultuous times ahead. But things feel better today than they did a week ago. And I'm hopeful that Marilyn Mosby's words continue to ring true and optimistic:

“To the youth of this city: I will seek justice on your behalf. This is a moment. This is your moment. Let’s ensure that we have peaceful and productive rallies that will develop structural and systemic changes for generations to come. You’re at the forefront of this cause. And as young people, our time is now.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

'One City, One Book' Celebrates its 10th Anniversary

One of the things I want to highlight in this blog is some of the great things happening in Baltimore City Public Schools, and our school has been doing something pretty cool now for what this year will be in its 10th Anniversary: a community reading of a book that we call "One City, One Book".

In this annual event, all students, parents, faculty, and alumni are invited to gather together and read a book collectively, and then share in the experience through discussion and a talk by the author. Today, this communal reading of a book by a state or city is fairly common, but it was rarer in 2005, when we launched it; for example, the great "One Maryland, One Book" program is "only" in its 8th year. But when "One City, One Book" was started -- spearheaded by Charles Ellenbogen, our department head at the time, and Amy Sampson, who has been running it ever since, with assistance by students and other department members at times -- it was still a fairly new idea nationally.

Over the last ten years, City has hosted National Book Award winners, a Pulitzer Prize award winner, a Guggenheim fellow, and a Maryland Poet Laureate, plus several other nationally or locally known writers. Each year, Ms. Sampson raises funds (through Donors Choose or The Children's Bookstore Foundation, for example) to subsidize the event and speakers fees, and the event is attended by around 100 students, parents, alumni, and staff.
This year is an especially exciting "One City, One Book," as Ms. Sampson and the student leaders have invited a City College grad, Sheri Booker (City '99), who wrote the acclaimed Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner City Funeral Home, which won the NAACP Image for "Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author." The darkly comic memoir has received national attention details Booker's experience working in Wylie Funeral Home in West Baltimore, and has been praised humor, wisdom, and poignancy. Shortly after the book was released, many in our department went to hear Ms. Booker read at Enoch Pratt Library, and her dynamic and charismatic presentation made us especially excited to hear her present to our students.

This is also an exciting year, because it's the 10th "One City, One Book": a whole decade of bringing in authors to talk to our students, parents, and staff around the reading of a book.

Below is a history of the event at City:

Some History of One City, One Book:
2005: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
Ms. Packer taught at City College in the late 1990s, so she was a natural fit for our inaugural One City, One Book event when she became an internationally known and praised author as a result of this wonderful collection of short stories. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere won Ms. Packer a Guggenheim fellowship and was John Updike's pick on the Today show's Book-of-the-Month club, and our students loved reading her tales, many of which are set in Baltimore. (Writing this has made me want to pick that book up again! Plus ZZ was an incredibly warm and resonant presence with our students.)
2006: The Book of Fred by Abby Bardi
The 2nd pick was a debut novel by Maryland author Abby Bardi, whose book is about a 15-year old protagonist raised in a cult.

2007: Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones
The Known World is one of my favorite novels of all time, so it was a thrill to meet Edward P. Jones, who had won a National Book Critics Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and a MacArthur grant by the time he had come to our high school to talk about Lost in the City, his debut short story collection. Mr. Jones was a reserved man, belying his literary rockstar persona, but was awesome with our kids. 

2008: From the Book of Giants by Joshua Weiner
The first poetry collection for "One City, One Book."


2009: Remembering Eden by Michael Glaser
Mr. Glaser, the Poet Laureate of Maryand, came to our school for an event called "The Paradox of Paradise", looking at both the beauty and danger of the environment. This was a really cool event organized by Ms. Tashjian that also included performances by Caleb Stine and Saleem, a folk singer and hip-hop artist who collaborated on a CD about Baltimore. 

2010: The Beautiful Struggle by Ta'Nehisi Coates
What a treat it was to hear Mr. Coates, one of my favorite contemporary writers and bloggers, speak about his terrific memoir about his dad and growing up in Baltimore. I think Coates has one of the sharpest minds in America, and hearing him speak to our students about his incredible book was a treat. 



2011: Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 
We almost got Ms. Adichie right as she was on the brink of literary stardom, but she had to cancel due to a family emergency in Nigeria. The One City, One Book group still held the event and discussed the book, with several of our Nigerian students leading discussions and presentations about cultural aspects of the novel. 

2013: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
Baltimore County Librarian Paula Gallagher suggested McBride's PEN-nominated debut novel about a little girl growing up in the Cambodian Killing fields. Ratner, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, now lives in DC, and led a riveting discussion of her book with our students and their parents.
2014: Accidents of Nature by Harriet McBryde Johnson
Our student who has Cerebral Palsy recommended Accidents of Nature by the late Ms. Johnson for our "One City, One Book" text. In the funny and moving novel, the protagonist has CP and ends up attending a camp for others with disabilities, and it opens up her world. Because Ms. Johnson has passed away, the guest speaker was Dan Keplinger, the artist with CP who is the subject of the 2000 Oscar-winning documentary short King Gimp Like the film, his speech was powerful and inspirational, and the discussions the school community had about the book were dynamic.
Photos from 2014's event surrounding Accidents of Nature:

Dan Keplinger, the subject of King Gimp

Students listen intently

Crowd shot.

Watching King Gimp short documentary, which won Oscar in 2000.

Small group discussion

Monday, April 6, 2015

Coaching with Cardiomyopathy

Even though I love coaching, I faced this spring with a little trepidation: the teaching and coaching schedule wears me out pretty good even with a normal heart, and I was worried that the two-and-a-half month coaching season after my Dilated Cardiomyopathy diagnosis might tax me beyond what was healthy. This school year has been a challenging one; I'm more tired than I've ever been, from a combination of both my heart condition and the medicines that I have to take to counter it, and, indeed, from the seemingly increasing demands of the profession (the two weeks before spring break were as intense as I've ever experienced in my career, dominated by many external requirements beyond being in the classroom). As the months crept closer to March, I couldn't imagine adding much more to my schedule: indeed, I have just been exhausted this school year.

Me throwing batting practice, which I love
The added hours weren't all: coaching requires physical health and fitness. And even though I've been exercising under doctor's orders throughout my diagnosis, it has been controlled exercise, mostly on machines that track my heart rate. My cardiologist has told me to stay comfortable on the Perceived Exertion Scale -- not feel too out of breath -- and I've been careful about that. In past years, I've liked to work out with my players, and, even if I'm not doing the exercises and hill runs with them, the throwing of batting practice or hitting of fly balls is a cardiovascular activity. I knew I would have to slow down somewhat, that my heart wouldn't able to take what I'd been used to taking in the past me.

Then, a few things hit me in this perceived trepidation I was feeling: first, I think I've probably had cardiomyopathy for a couple years at this point, so this really isn't my first time "coaching with cardiomyopathy." And now I know that I have the condition, instead of it just being a mysterious shortness of breath that doctors couldn't diagnose, so I know not to push myself by, say, running up hills with my 17-year old players. Additionally, I thought that the daily activity from coaching -- namely, the daily required activity -- might make me feel better. It's sometimes hard to lug myself to the Merritt after a long day of teaching, but if I don't have a choice in the matter, the exercise will come. So, perhaps, I concluded, the coaching could be a good thing for me and my health.

Setting up the batting cage as a team
That's not to mention, of course, that I really do love coaching, and this group of seniors features a handful of kids I have coached all four years, student-athletes that are inspirations on both the diamond and in the classroom. Two of the seniors I have in the classroom, and they know about my heart condition, and have made sure I'm not carrying anything after practice and such (carrying things and walking, I have found, has been the biggest issue for me, probably because I just have been unable to predict just how strenuous that activity can be). That's not to mention a bunch of other great kids on the team, too, including a group of 9th graders who are as talented a group of freshmen as I've ever seen.

The results, a month into the season? Way better than can be expected. Namely, I've rarely thought about my condition at all when I'm out there on the field, which I think is the true mark of whether something affects you or not. There have been a few times when I've felt short of breath -- the day I threw 300 pitches in batting practice, for example, or the day I hit flyball after flyball to the outfield -- but I've been able to remain in control, and measure out my breathing so I wouldn't feel faint. For the most part, my oversized, weak heart has been keeping up with my activities.

It helps that I think my condition is improving, as well. A couple of weeks into the season, I got my 6-month Echocardiogram, after six months on Carvedilol. My Ejection Fraction had improved from 35% to 55% from September until March, which feels kind of miraculous to me. This is on the bottom edge of normal. I don't know the complete implications of this new test result, but my cardiologist called me excitedly at 9pm the night I had it done with the results. I have an appointment with her this week and she will tell me about what it all means. I had told her at that point that I didn't feel better, but I think I do by this point; she took me off the Lasix, though I'm still on the Carvedilol (the beast) and a couple of other drugs, and I'm hopeful that I'll continue to feel better. Although I know that the heart muscle will always be weakened, it would be pretty great if the Cardiomyopathy has been managed. (What is still not clear for me: what my prognosis is, how much I'll have to worry about this the rest of my life, etc.)

Weather for practices has lately been great.
But "coaching with cardiomyopathy"? It's fine. I just returned from a morning spring break practice, and just loved it. Indeed, I feel like we've been having the most productive season in years, namely because our fundraising venture to get a batting cage has been successful, and it's totally revolutionized what we can do in practices. Even though we had some bad weather at the start of the season (snow after March is terrible for baseball fields) and have many games postponed, the practices have been mostly tremendous, with squads being able to head inside and hit in the batting cage, as well as be outside on the field. I recently upgraded to an iPhone 6-plus that I'm using as much for practices than anything else; I am able to record players swinging or pitching in slow motion, then meet with them about their swings so we can tweak our swings or windups. And the group of guys is just an amazing team so far, and I'm looking forward to how they do in games the rest of the season.

In short, about halfway into the season, and I'm satisfied with the progress of both my health and the team. Now just hoping for the city to get out and fix up our field so it's playable, and we start getting these games in. Happily, my heart can take it.
The batting cage in a previously unused courtyard in school. Made possible with a GoFundMe site and grants from Fowble Foundation, T. Rowe Price, and many former players and parents of players.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Please don't drop AP Summer Academy in BCPSS

I've just finished one of the most strenuous weeks I've ever had teaching. There are a lot of reasons for that, most of which involved coaching until late every evening combined with a new grading system at our school which allows late work until the end of the quarter, which ended Wednesday with final grades due on Friday at 4pm (mine came in with 7 minutes to spare). So, not much blogging this week.

However, I did want to talk about this article. The BCPSS has a budget crisis (again), and is set to drop a bunch of programs, particularly summer programs. In the crosshairs to get cut is the AP Summer Academy, which, according to the article, cost $99,000 last year and served 206 students. I've taught the graduates of this program -- which serves students who are about to take AP courses the next year -- in the subsequent years (I don't teach AP; I teach IB, which most of our AP students take the next year), and I still see the fruits of this summer. These are academically curious kids, strong readers and writers. I think the AP Summer Academy has a lot to do with that.

I hope it doesn't get cut, but I was especially disappointed in the response by Dr. Thornton, that he's proposing the cuts because "he believes high-achieving students would rather have jobs than continue school" and would rather invest in (much cheaper) professional development for teachers. Yet, the article states that the AP Summer Academy has one of the highest attendance rates of summer programs.

I hope Dr. Thornton has a chance to see the AP Summer Academy in action this summer, because the enthusiasm of those students and teachers shouldn't be squelched just because the kids are advanced.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Recap of Two Brains Running 2015: Teaching August Wilson and William Shakespeare

Last Saturday (March 14, 2015), my colleague Amber Phelps and I were invited to present at an amazing event called "Two Brains Running: Teaching August Wilson and William Shakespeare" at the Folger Shakespeare Library. It was an event sponsored by PNC, WQED, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and The August Wilson Wilson Education Project, and featured scholars and teachers discussing August Wilson and William Shakespeare in the classroom. The event was free to any teachers in the area, and I'm hopeful it continues in the future.   
Dr. Sandra Shannon, leading Wilson scholar. Photo courtesy Deesha Philyaw, Director of the August Wilson Education Project.
The event started at 8:30 with a half-hour reception, but the event coincided with the Rock and Roll Marathon in DC, which closed roads and pushed traffic away from the Folger and made us later than we wanted to be. But we made it in time to hear Dr. Sandra Shannon, a leading scholar on August Wilson. She's the author of August Wilson's Fences: A Reference Guide, a book I've always been interested in purchasing, but it is $68 on Amazon and $52 on Kindle, and I've never ponied up for it. But I was lucky enough to hear Dr. Shannon speak in person, and she offered a wealth of information about August Wilson, as well as a couple of materials that seem like they will be great tools for teaching, including I Ain't Sorry for Nothin by Joan Herrington, which details Wilson's process for playwrighting, and Dr. Shannon mentioned that it details some specific descriptions of the process of writing Fences. I've ordered the book and can't wait for it to arrive.
Amber Phelps and I prepare to present on teaching Wilson and Shakespeare on the Folger stage. Photo courtesy Katie Moy-Santos.

Later, Dr. Shannon shed some light on Wilson's access to his writing process, which I found really interesting. I knew that Wilson was a constant drafter and tinkerer with his plays, revising as he saw actors read the words onstage. But I didn't quite know he was as open about his process as Dr. Shannon shared with us. I've always sort of imagined August Wilson as kind of cranky, extrapolating from his notable and interesting attacks on colorblind casting, but Dr. Shannon's talk described him as genial and open about his process, and lit a fire in me to seek out some of Wilson's interviews and description of his processes to share with students. 

Our 49-page packet to participants of Two Brains Running.
Ms. Phelps (Teaching Shakespeare Institute 2012) and I (TSI 2008) were up next. Fences has been an integral part of the 9th grade curriculum at our school since the late 1990s, before either of our times at the school, and we have a wealth of materials our 9th grade team at City College has created. Focusing mostly on recent years and assessments geared towards the Common Core and IB Middle Years Program, we shared many of the more recent resources. Our main assessment this year for the 9th graders was a short memorized scene, with a 2-minute rationale each individual student had to introduce the scene with, describing what his or her choices would be to capture the language, characterization, and themes of Wilson. I was able to show a few different versions of this assessment from my 9th graders -- just a few seconds of each -- and then moved on to what my seniors do with Shakespeare later, producing videos such as this. In addition, Ms. Phelps described many of our tools for preparing students for the Common Core, including text-dependent questions and comparing two complex texts, in an awesome lesson she developed which has students compare Aristotle's "On Tragedy" with Fences, and later a lesson that introduces The Merchant of Venice with watching two different versions of the same scene from Fences (one starring James Earl Jones and one starring Denzel Washington). Ms. Phelps uses the analysis of the performance as a bridge to analyze performance choices in Merchant of Venice, in preparation for the final assessments of her IB Literature and Performance class.

I think participants of the program enjoyed the presentation, and the Folger printed out a wonderful -- glossy finish and colorful -- version of our packet. Plus, we got live-tweeted by Folger Education Director Peggy O'Brien! 
Ms. Phelps and I presenting on Wilson. Photo courtesy Katie Moy-Santos.
Afterwards, we heard some reflections and perspectives on Wilson from Riley Temple, Lawyer and Activist, and then enjoyed lunch. One interesting conversation we had on the way to lunch was with a pre-service teacher who asked us about the frequent use of the n-word in Fences, and how we dealt with that in the classroom. It's interesting, because it forced me to reflect on something that I probably don't reflect on enough. I'm a proud liberal, but I'm pretty conservative on the n-word: I don't use it and have never used it. I've never read the word out loud, even in literature, and basically think that this is a word for Black people to decide on, not white people. So I take myself out of it. Some of my older African American colleagues agree with this. They don't want the word to be uttered out of white person's lips, and particularly don't want Black students to ever hear it out of their white teacher's mouth and think it's right. They will point to recent episodes like the racist fraternity song and say that incidents like this occur in part because we're too liberal with the word now, that it's too easy for all to say, and we should keep the word on lockdown. 
Lunch across the street in the Folger Education Building. Photo courtesy Corinne Viglietta, the Assistant Director of Education at the Folger.
But others, perhaps younger, have said that my decision not to say the word makes the word more powerful. So I'm not sure, and even less so now that I'm in an interracial relationship with someone in the latter camp, the camp who thinks it gives the word more power to not say it. Louis C.K. has a really interesting take on it, too (he believes that white people who say "n-word" are in the wrong because they make the listener think the word and the speaker gets away without getting baggage for saying it). My colleague, Ms. Phelps, says if a white student decides to say the word in a performance of August Wilson, she wants them to go all-out, to own the word, not act like it's forbidden. 
Deesha Philyaw, Director of the August Wilson Education Project, shows off the t-shirt all participants at the event received. Photo courtesy Deesha Philyaw.
So my answer to this pre-service teacher is that I tell my students I don't use the word, and that they can make the decision themselves. I've had white students in recent years say the n-word in performances of the play while reading Wilson's words, and they don't bat an eye, and neither do apparently my Black students. And maybe that's good, that the word is losing its power. But I'm not sure, and my views are constantly evolving. 

After lunch, Dr. Caleen Sinnette Jennings of American University, someone who has had a profound impact on my classroom practice (and that of Ms. Phelps) as a result of her being one of the theater professors at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute, presented a workshop called "Two Bards Ranting." Dr. Jennings, a renowned playwright, professor, and actor, began by having us embody words in groups, words we later learned were from a monologue from Wilson's King Hedley II, a play I don't know at all but would love to learn. 
Embodying words from King Hedley's and Hamlet's speeches at Two Brains Running. Photo courtesy of Corinne Viglietta, Assistant Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
The monologue Dr. Jennings selected was this one:
“They got everything stacked up against you as it is. Every time I try to do something they get in the way. It’s been that way my whole life. Every time I try to do something they get in the way. Especially if you try and get some money. They don’t want you to have none of that. They keep that away from you. They got fifty eleven way to get money and don’t want you to have none. They block you at every turn... I ain't gonna be poor all my life. I ain't gonna die a poor man... I saw 'Okay, but I got to wait.' What I'm waiting on? I don't know. I'm just waiting. I told myself I'm waiting on things to change. I go for a job and they say, 'What can you do.' I saw, 'I can do anything.' ... I ain't limited to nothing... I got to make it whatever way I can... I don't want much. Just a little bit. Why you got to have it all. Give me some. I ain't botherin' nobody. I got to feel right about myself. I look around and say, 'Where the barbed wire?' They got everything else. They got me blocked in every other way. 'Where the barbed wire?''”
King Hedley and Hamlet converse during Dr. Jennings' session. Powerful! Photo courtesy of Corinne Viglietta, Assistant Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Dr. Jennings highlighted several words, and had us embody them with gestures and movements, and eventually this helped us feel the rhythms of the monologue through choral reading: the repeated "they" and "I," setting up the conflicts of the character, the metaphor of the "barbed wire," the frustration of "waiting" and encountering "block"s. Later, Dr. Jenning had us do something similar with Hamlet's "I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth..." speech.

This culminated in an actual dialogue between King Hedley and Hamlet, where Dr. Jennings broke apart the speech into single phrases and sentences, and had the two characters talk to each other. This activity was pretty mind-blowing, as it helped us see the universality of the frustration of these two characters, how they feel boxed in by their obstacles. Powerful stuff, and really helped us realize the symbolism, rhythm, images, poetry, and connections between the speeches.


After that amazing experience, we watched the 30-minute version of American Masters -- August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand, presented by Deesha Philyaw, Manager of The August Wilson Education Project. The film was great and I look forward to watching the 90-minute version someday. Notable, it was cool to see Clarke Peters of The Wire performing Jitney in a video that looked like from the 1980s. The film is available here for free for the next four years, according to Ms. Philyaw (any Wire fans should go to the 18-minute mark to see Clarke Peters, but the whole thing is great).

Overall, we had a great time at the event, and I can only hope this will expand and continue to foster the teaching of August Wilson alongside that of William Shakespeare. At our school, at least in the 9th grade, we split up the teaching of Drama into semesters, with the same performance assessment with each, so even though some time separates the units, our philosophy is that this is how you study drama. The event gave me some ideas about how to begin Romeo and Juliet next week, through our previous study of Fences, and Dr. Jennings' activity in which King Hedley and Hamlet conversed made me think about how I can do that with, say, Cory Maxson and Juliet, for example. (Gosh, I wish we were teaching a different Shakespeare with more connections, but that's for a different year. But I'll continue to brainstorm! Can't be Hamlet, because that's taught in a different grade level.)

We left with our senses charged and hopeful that this will continue. Big thanks to Danielle Drakes, the Education Outreach Coordinator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, who was instrumental in putting together the event, and weathered our last-minute packet decisions, and to Peggy O'Brien for inviting us to present! 

The beautiful Folger stage. Photo courtesy Deesha Philyaw, Director of the August Wilson Education Project.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Review: Tim Winton's The Turning (and How We're Teaching It)

For the last several years, I've taught Tim Winton's stirring novel Cloudstreet, his 1991 classic which is full of wonderful characters and stirring themes. Students have mostly responded well to it, with the only drawback being its length (around 424 pages) in the time of the class I have to teach it (2nd semester, senior year). In our study of fiction for the IB program, we have to finish four works of fiction during that time (from a list of authors IB provides), and I find I really only have time for one long novel, and, the last couple of years, I've chosen Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

This year, however, I have a co-teacher for the class, and we decided on The Turning, a collection of short stories by Winton. Upon its release in 2005, the collection received excellent reviews, and our reading of the first few stories supported those reviews. Over the last few weeks, I've completed the reading of the collection, and I'm really happy with our choice. It's an accessible world literature text with quirky characters, some cool twist endings, and a everyman lyricism that is both simple and beautiful.

Plus, with our time constraints in the 2nd semester, the great thing about a short story collection is we don't have to teach every one of the short stories. Our February of mass interruptions have forced our schedule into teaching just 9 of the 17 short stories in a quick, tight 2-week unit; as of today, I have just 24 days of class left with my seniors.

Our first task in planning the unit was to know the book well, and then to decide what stories to teach. In our discussion of the book the other day as we planned our unit, my colleague and I decided to emphasize the interconnectedness of the stories. This caused us to cut a few great stories because they had only tangential connection to the other stories: the opening gritty "Big World"; the long-ish 33-page "Small Mercies," about a couple of damaged souls re-connecting after years apart; the awesome "Cockleshell," with its shocking ending; and "Aquifer," a story I liked, just not as much as some of the other ones. We also cut "Boner McPharlin's Moll," a story I loved and which has some connections to the Lang family that runs throughout the text, but at 42 pages, seemed too long. And while we have a close focus on Vic Lang and his escapades, we decided against "Immunity" (a strange trifle of a story looking at Vic through the voice of a distant high school connection) and "Defender" (the last story, it looks at what became of Vic, but we just thought the kids would like the other stories better. We also didn't much like "Reunion," which focuses on the Langs as well.

That left us with 9 stories, which we've divided into 3 separate readings:

Our first chunk features "Abbreviation," "Damaged Goods," and "On Her Knees," which all detail Vic Lang in three interesting ways. "Abbreviation" portrays a "not quite 13"-year old Vic who falls in love with a 16-year old girl with a missing ring finger while on vacation at the beach. It's told in 3rd person limited point of view, and is kind of a sexual awakening story. We listened to the audio of it yesterday (I wanted the kids to get used to an Australian accent running through their heads) and students enjoyed this strange, funny story of a boy's first kiss. "Damaged Goods" is a story I love; today, during a chunk of silent reading, a student at the end of class said out loud, "Oh my God. Who's reading this? Did you finish yet?" and another student answered,"What? Strawberry Allison is a lesbian?" and I said, "No, just wait. That's not the shocker." And then the wave of surprise passed over them as they got to the twisty ending. It was pretty cool, and so interestingly told: it's a story about Vic, but told by his middle-aged wife while their marriage is failing, and she's investigating and exploring this obsession Vic had while in high school with a girl who had a birthmark on her face. The last story of this trifecta, "On Her Knees," is told in the 1st person point of view, about Vic at the age of 17, after his father left, which is 2 years after the meningitis death of his infant sister. After the overt (but fairly innocent) sexuality of "Abbreviation," some of my students thought "On Her Knees" was going to be about sex, but I was happy to tell them it refers to Vic's mom working as a cleaning lady; the story is simple and sturdy and reminded me other short stories I've read; I could see 9th graders grasping it well.

The second chunk features "The Turning," "Sand," and "Family," which feature different characters, although we get the sense that they all went to the same high school. "The Turning" is an epic short story featuring Raelene, an abused wife who is the protagonist, who befriends a younger attractive couple, Dan and Sherry, and experiences a religious awakening of sorts; it culminates into a final disturbing epiphany during a near-rape scene at the end of the story. In my first reading, I thought Raelene had died by the end of the story, but a clue that comes later in "Family" makes me think she's still alive. In either case, it's a gut-wrenching story, and one I think the students will love. The paired story is "Family," which features Raelene's husband's brother, as an ex-football star on a bender, and his uneasy reunion with his brother in the shark-infested surfing waters off the coast of Angelos. A satisfying and slightly shocking ending is featured in this story, something I've come to expect of Winton's stories. Between those two stories is the 7-page "Sand," which sets up the two brothers' relationship with a disturbing and dangerous conflict they had as children.I think students will love the Raelene drama and the (spoiler alert!) the shark attack in these stories, which will be our window to study the tools Winton uses to craft the stories.

The preceding trio of Leaper stories then will lead to our last set of three stories at the end of the unit, each of which return us to the Lang family."Long, Clear View" is the first of these, featuring the youngest Vic Lang we get, because he just moved to Angelos (in "Abbreviation," he had just moved there, too, but we get a sense that one happens after since the family is reunited). It's an especially interesting story, because it's written in the rarest of points of view, 2nd person. (It's my second 2nd person point of view story I've taught this year, after Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "The Thing Around Your Neck" earlier to my 9th graders, after never teaching one my entire time of teaching, although if you think "The Tell-Tale Heart" is 2nd person, then I have.) Not a lot happens in the story -- it's mostly about Vic feeling threatened after his dad is stationed in a different town -- but it establishes a mood quite well, and you can't pass up teaching a 2nd person work of fiction when you get a chance. "Fog" (about Vic's father, Bob) is an exciting story within itself, describing the rescue of a hiker, but within the context of the entire collection, it's a tragic portrayal of Vic's father descending into alcoholism as he deals with the shady police force he's working on. Lastly, "Commission" takes place a couple of decades later when Vic, who hasn't seen his father in 27 years since he left his mother and him when Vic was just 16. Now, Vic goes into the Australian bush to seek him out at the request of his mother, who is dying of cancer. It's a compelling story; the tension between the characters is authentic and pained, and the descriptions of the countryside are stone beautiful.

So those are the nine stories we're assigning out of the 17-story collection. Next year, we may do more, but we are strapped for time and still need to finish Americanah and have some time for review before IB exams on May 4 and May 5. However, I'm quite happy with the selection so far; in the first week with this literature, students are enjoying the short stories, and discussions have been fruitful. Tim Winton's poetic yet approachable language as well as his interesting use of point of view makes it ideal for study, the Australian vernacular is fun, not daunting, and reminds students of the wideness of our world, and the stories' twisty, sometimes shocking endings, with moments of both violence, humor, and sex (though nothing too profane), make it an enjoyable read. The only drawback is the price -- $16.49 on Amazon for paperback, and stocks are low -- which hopefully will be corrected if it becomes more popular in the U.S.