Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Letter to My English 9 Students

Dear English 9 Students,

Would you like to hear a secret? I am very nervous about teaching you this year. I started my teaching career 34 years ago, but I haven’t taught freshmen since 2002 and so much has changed since then: you have changed, technology has changed, and I have changed. As we begin our year together, I’d like to share some thoughts.

I want you to know I am in awe of your technological expertise. Many of you are masters of multi-tasking, and I marvel at your ability to walk down the halls while chatting with friends, listening to music on your IPods, and sending text messages—all at the same time. I still haven’t sent a single text message, I don’t have a Facebook Account, and I usually turn off my phone when I take long walks in the afternoon.

This year you will be thrilled to discover laptop computers in our English classroom. Each of you will be assigned a specific computer for daily or occasional use, and you will learn to use a variety of technological tools that can enhance your learning, expand your global interactions, and help you create professional presentations.

So why am I nervous? Technology is an amazing tool, but it is just that—a tool—and at times it becomes a distraction. My passion isn’t teaching technology; it’s teaching the art of communication through reading, writing, speaking, and listening. I can’t wait to share with you my love of literary classics as well as strategies for becoming articulate writers, convincing speakers, and active listeners. But learning effective communication skills requires hard work, focus, and commitment. At times, you will be tempted to check your email, play computer games, or send a text message. Technology has made your lives easier in so many ways. You are instantly connected to friends; YouTube provides constant entertainment; you have invented your own language and can ignore traditional grammar rules, while cutting your messages down to 140 characters of Twittering.

But let me share another secret. I am old-fashioned—in fact, I’m older than most of your parents and may have even taught some of them. Reading and writing are two of my favorite hobbies, and I love curling up on the couch with a good book or reading a five-page letter from a close friend. I’m also sad that some elementary schools no longer teach cursive writing (I must confess I have saved the letters my husband wrote to me before we were married—he has beautiful handwriting and writes eloquently . . . which is probably why I married him!)

Because many of you are experts in the art of instant, condensed communication, you may feel reluctant to read long, challenging works of literature that expand your vocabulary and your world view. You may become frustrated revising your compositions multiple times, or learning to make eye contact when you share your ideas. But learning the basic skills of reading, writing, speaking, and listening is essential if you want use technology to reach your future goals rather than allowing technology to control you.

I am going to push you to use technology as a tool, not a substitute for learning. I am going to push you to read demanding works of literature much longer than 140 characters. I will teach you grammar, vocabulary, writing skills, and traditional essay structures. I will expect you to arrive to class on time, put away all distractions (electronic or otherwise) before walking through the classroom door, and open your mind to scintillating ideas and higher-level thinking.

As I end this letter, I no longer feel nervous about teaching this year. Putting my feelings on paper reminds me why I became a teacher, and I can’t wait to share with you authors such as Shakespeare, who will give you words for feelings you didn’t even know you had until you read his words. I also can’t wait for you to share with me your energy, your humor, and your unique perspectives. And will someone please show me how to send a text message?


Mrs. Marlys A. Ferrill

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Teaching the Classics

As a teacher and lover of classical literature, I'll admit that interest in the classics has waned since I started teaching 33 years ago. Nonetheless, I'm still convinced students must read challenging works that expand their world view, vocabulary, and understanding of different time periods and cultures.

Certainly students don't need to read traditional or antiquated literary peices to achieve these benefits. I just finished teaching The Kite Runner to my sophomores, and most of them easily devoured this story about a man seeking redemption for past mistakes. In recent years I haven't enjoyed the same success with A Separate Peace, a classic novel with a similar theme, but more difficult to read. So I plan to continue teaching The Kite Runner and will probably offer A Separate Peace as an optional assignment. But part of me worries about placing less emphasis on a novel that forces students to struggle with vocabulary and syntax. Is my decision to teach an "easier," more contemporary novel what educators refer to as "dumbing down the curriculum"? Don't get me wrong. I loved teaching The Kite Runner and value its poetic style and cultural relevance--and my students loved the novel (a victory in and of itself). But they rarely asked questions about the meaning of certain passages or vocabulary the way students do when reading the classics. If I want them to improve their rhetorical skills, don't I need to expose them to literary forms not typical of what they like to read?

Just this morning I read an article in the Rocky Mountain News about the One Book, One Denver program promoted by Mayor John Hickenlooper. Apparently the program isn't doing too well because readers don't like the book choices. According to local author Joy Hakim, "This is the information age and what most of us want to read is real stuff...The novel was an exciting literary form in the 19th century...Today's literary form is nonfiction." Excuse me. The destructive power of jealousy in Othello is not real? The pain of Gene in A Separate Peace understanding that he is his own worst enemy is not real? The joy of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice discovering a soul-mate who is her intellectual equal depite the pressures of a society consumed by social status not real? Portia's definition of mercy as a quality which "blesseth him that gives and him that takes" in Merchant of Venice not real? The purpose of great literature is to give us a real understanding of ourselves and the world around us. We need the classics to give us words that increase such understanding, and we need to learn the art of expressing our emotions in words that can move others.

Nothing compares with watching students experience the joy of reading literary masterpieces which defy the passage of time. This past week my AP Language students read Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Students struggled with words such as "apoplexy," "portmanteau," and "Quixotic," but their laughter rang out more often than their questions; and as one student exclaimed while walking out of class at the end of the period, "This play is sheer perfection."

Monday, November 26, 2007

Giving Thanks

A week ago Saturday I attended the Advanced Placement Conference at Cherry Creek High School. Imagine my surprise when our presenter used overheads during the AP Language workshop. Squinting my eyes at fuzzy graphics and faded print, I had forgotten how bland overhead materials appear compared to professional-looking PowerPoints. But our presenter was not to blame. The classroom was not equipped with an overhead projector, and several teachers in my session described insufficient access to technology in their schools as well. Some schools only have one or two computer labs for the entire building; other schools receive no technology training opportunities; and still others are without effective leaders guiding them into the 21st Century.

How thankful I am for Karl Fisch and the opportunities, excitement, and vision he has brought to AHS! His expertise in technology, passion for improving education, and boundless energy (some refer to him as an elf—I think of him as the Energizer Bunny) have renewed my dedication to teaching and remaining a lifelong learner even as the twilight of my career begins.

I also want to thank many others:
• 21st Century Cohort Members, who consistently challenge me to examine my teaching practices and generously share their own
• Building administrators and mentors, who support innovative ideas and collaborative efforts
• Several brave teachers, who have invited cohort members into their classrooms to watch an entire hour of constructivist teaching
• The entire English Department for shouldering the tremendous task of promoting reading and writing skills across the curriculum
• And specifically, my desk-mate, Cheryl Makovsky, who demonstrates every day how women our age can still be creative, passionate teachers

Teaching is indeed an art, not a profession; and I am grateful to those who have encouraged and validated my individual expression. Thank you!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Blogger Sense

Last year I struggled to make blogging a meaningful experience for my students, and at times I felt as if I assigned blog responses simply for the sake of requiring them to blog. This year, however, I have been delighted with blogging responses that make sense. For example, recently I asked my AP Language students to go beyond required assignments for Beowulf and investigate websites related to Anglo-Saxon literature, archetypal heroes, and additional epic adventures. I told students to find articles, artwork, and websites they found interesting and to share their discoveries on our class blog. Although I haven’t finished perusing all of their connections, I am delighted with what I’ve seen so far. If you’d like to see some of their responses, visit “The Best of All Intellectual Risk-Takers.”

Monday, August 20, 2007

Igniting a Renaissance of Wonder

Last Sunday, August 19th, the Perspective section of The Denver Post shared three articles about education. The first, titled, “How Can We Make Public Education Work?” by Tony Lewis, lamented yet another year of disappointing CSAP scores and suggested radical solutions such as “more student time spend in the classroom including …longer days, longer years, Saturday classes and after school tutoring.” The second article, “Break the Inertia with Drastic Measures” by Van Schoales, also proposed radical solutions such as getting “rid of teacher tenure,” and paying “for expertise, performance and student results, not years served.” The third article, “Awaiting—still—a Renaissance of Wonder” by Cherry Creek English teacher Michael Mazenko, described Mazenko’s dismay at the lack of wonder and passion in today’s teenagers and adults. About the lack of wonder in his students, Mazenko wonders, “ ‘have we killed it in [them] already?’ ” Happily, he concludes by describing the sense of discovery his own small children have ignited in him.

Guess which article made my heart pump faster. Guess which article made me eager to start the 2006-2007 school year. You guessed it: Mazenko’s reference to a Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem which includes the line, “I am awaiting, perpetually and forever, a renaissance of wonder.”

Although I am concerned about Arapahoe’s less than stellar CSAP and ACT scores, I’m not sure longer school days and school years will fix them as Lewis suggests. If anything, Arapahoe’s high achieving students will become even more overwhelmed by the number of AP classes and extra-curricular activities that define their success. The less successful ones will have more reason to zone out, skip classes, and complain about conventional hoops extended with more of the same academic rigor. If school days and years are lengthened, I hope we spend the extra time taking students to museums, giving them opportunities to volunteer for worthwhile causes, and encouraging them to learn about different cultures. They don’t need more of the same—they need a new perspective to help them appreciate all of the wonders this world offers.

And even though I agree with eliminating tenure and paying teachers higher wages to encourage excellence and abolish mediocrity, I just don’t believe it will happen. As long as well-known radio personalities suggest that athletes deserve multi-million dollar contracts while teachers deserve lower pay for a nine-month job anyone can do, we are fighting a losing battle against a negative public perception. Never mind all of the dribble about teaching being more of an art than a profession. And don’t consider how teachers hold the future of this country in their hands. Ignore the extra hours teachers spend meeting one-on-one with students, grading papers, creating five presentations a day, and agonizing over each individual student. The general public perception is that we have a job (not a career) anyone can do.

But I will not go gently into the end of my career. When I read Mazenko’s article reminding readers to recapture the wonder of childhood, I felt my passion for teaching once again ignite. My phoenix rose out of the ashes, and I knew my mission for this year: to create that “renaissance of wonder” in my students. So the very first day of class I will ask my AP students if they wonder why I assigned Beowulf over the summer. I will ask my sophomores why we teach so many “depressing” works of literatures rather than lighthearted pieces of escape fiction. And I will ask my Shakespeare students if they’ve ever wondered why Shakespeare is considered the greatest writer of all time. Then, after I ignite the first round of questions, I will hand them the torch. They must translate their wonder into questions.

Thank you, Michael Mazenko, for reminding me “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire” (William Butler Yeats).

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Imagination is Better than Knowledge

A week ago I read an article in the Rocky Mountain News that addressed some of the issues we discussed in our last 21st century class. In his column, "Imagination's Better Than Knowledge," Thomas Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, discusses China's ability to become as innovative and competitive as America in the 21st century. Friedman quotes from a new biography by Walter Issacson called Einstein: His Life and Universe, and Friedman suggests that the very factors which stimulated Einstein's genius might prevent China from achieving its technological potential. Specifically, Isaacson's book describes Einstein as a man who "fled oppression. . . to think and express [himself] creatively." Einstein believed that "the only way to have creativity and imagination is to nuture free thought--rebellious free thought." Isaacson also says, "Einstein thought that the freest society with the most rebellious thinking would be the most creative. If we are going to have any advantage over China, it is because we nurture rebellious, imaginative free thinkers, rather than try to control expression." So Friedman wonders if "China [will] hit a ceiling on innovation because of its political authoritarianism."

Rebelliousness and authoritarianism. We certainly sounded like rebels a week ago Thursday as we discussed how to alter conventional attitudes toward education and actually change teaching strategies that stifle imagination rather than ignite it. I thought our comments about hours of meaningless homework, "easy vs. hard teachers," and traditional classes for non-traditional students were especially insightful. But I also sensed some nervousness about challenging a system that works--challenging those in authority-- even if a new system might work better. And yet, Friedman's article reminds us that institutions can only improve if they are challenged regularly. Complacency surely breeds mediocrity and boredom, even within ourselves. Or perhaps I should say especially within ourselves.

Our last session was invigorating for me. When Missy described her creative introductions to chemistry labs and Andrea validated their motivational power, I applauded the determination of these young teachers to use creative techniques that make their subject matter relevant. Friedman's article reminds us how Einstein "found sheer beauty and creative joy in science and equations." I've said it before, but I'll say it again: "Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire."

We must not go gentle into the 21st century. Friedman believes "a society that restricts imagination is unlikely to produce many Einsteins--no matter how many educated people it has." Imagination requires rebellious thinking because we dare to try what has not been tried before. Thank you, to all of you twenty-first century learners who have challenged me to try innovative teaching strategies. It has not been easy for me, and I don't think I've had a particularly stellar year in teaching; but I have definitely left my comfort zone and hope I can encourage young teachers to do the very "thing [they] think [they] cannot do" (Eleanor Roosevelt).

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bam! Bang! Pow!

The information presented at our February session was both meaningful and timely. I’m always looking for better research techniques to pass along to my students, and Tracy Murphy’s presentation on subscription services was very helpful. I especially liked the idea of requiring students to annotate the sources they use to find information. By the time my AP students write a “synthesis” essay for their exam this coming May, they will need to assess the validity of the sources they use, and practice annotating sources should give them the experience they need to do well on this part of the test.

I also liked “The Big Ideas” group activity that followed our time in the computer lab. Sharing with other members of my department helped me reexamine my goals for specific classes I teach, and seeing connections with other departments reminded me to broaden the scope of my lessons. In fact, Christine Zisch, who teaches Psychology, has already given me two handouts to use with my classes when we discuss learning styles. Psychological issues often surface in literature, and it was fun sharing with Christine the several connections we might make between our classes. Talking about literature with a left-brained math teacher such as Jared Rottschafer was also helpful in reminding me that not all students relish analyzing characters, themes, and rhetorical strategies. Looking at my subject matter from a different perspective was illuminating, and I hope to have further discussions with Jared about reaching students who may not be planning to major in English.

Finally, Terry Sale ended our afternoon session with a bang. Literally. First he gave us background about the science fiction class he teaches, and then he showed us the antiquated slide show (yes, he used a projector and record player) he uses to introduce science fiction to his class each semester. Pow! Bang! Bam! I felt as if I were watching classic cartoons in motion. Then he modeled both constructivist and non-constructivist teaching methods for using this slide show. While watching the show, some of us took notes using a worksheet with blanks, and others simply wrote down impressions of what they saw. It soon became obvious that the worksheet was too confining, and he explained that his classes usually discover important ideas about science fiction without it. He has also challenged his students to update the slide show, and with advanced technology at their fingertips, the results should be impressive. After watching his presentation, I went home and created an assignment for my Shakespeare class: design a movie trailer for a scene from King Lear. The assignment was fun to create, and I can’t wait to see how the students react to it.

So—the day went well. Thank you to everyone who helped make it a success.