19 August 2015


   A post from last winter.... still thinking about how learning happens, and who is in charge of it?

Here goes part 2 of my reflections on learning on the internet--and in this post, I think it is me that needs the lesson. Maybe "lesson" is the wrong word. What seems so clear to me is not so clear to all my students. Sometimes I need to address intent, other times the result is the issue. Certainly this particular conundrum arose because I created a new approach to my unit. It takes years to get them perfect! Here is the problem...

    Last week, all three sections of my Brit Lit classes were performing and then addressing thematic and structural ideas in various acts of King Lear. So I had three groups, for instance, choosing one scene from a certain act, performing it, and then presenting to the class their reasons for choosing that scene as representative of the act. So most of the presos  (2-3 minutes) mentioned thematic ideas and then also discussed in greater depth an aspect of drama that was a major focus for that act. I had some expectations that groups for Act 3, for instance, would mention the drama created by the seesawing set changes, but if they chose another element and defended it well, I could blurb on about those setting changes myself in the discussion afterwards. But what happened totally surprised me, though it should not have. Two groups (in different sections) gave the same presentation, though they did not dramatize the same scene. These are junior AP-level students, so they did their research. That's a good thing. But what bothered their teacher was that the order of sentences and the wording the students used was identical.  Not a problem for the other students--it made them focus their attention on critical issues in our study of Lear, which is what I wanted. They were good presos.

   But what concerns me is that I don't know whether any critical thinking happened--unless you count choosing a good answer from your look at Shmoop or Shakespeare-Online as critical thinking.  Since the wording was identical, I am assuming that they copied it word for word--no thinking involved.
And then they shared it, probably, which one of the students had told me anyway--"oh, yeah, Healigan, we talked about it." Did anyone think about whether or not they agreed with the website? I do not think so. And I am pretty sure I am right, because any good teacher can tell the difference between student syntax and scholarly website diction. (They never believe me when I tell them this.)
So while this is not cheating, it is not learning either. They are good kids, working hard to learn and achieve at the same time. Why do I have to mention learning AND achievement as if they are different things? Because perhaps school is set up as if these two things are mutually exclusive. My kids know it.

   I am absolutely sure that these two groups deserve good grades for their work. But I still don't know if either group is ready to move with me to the next step. How am I supposed to know? A high grade doesn't tell me.  I do not have the time to reteach or recast the unit--it is taking too long already. I think that lesson design is a significant portion of the problem, but I am not sure if all this collaborative work we are creating will be manageable for this teacher. To be honest, I had a perfectly good approach to this that the students were engaged in, except that it was entirely teacher-centered. It is my third year doing Shakespeare at the AP level, so it was time to tip the scales. Now the scales are tipped and I think I fell off the scale and hurt myself!

So Rusty

I have to start writing again: the kids arrive next week!!!!! I am so rusty at self-expression, so today's post will be a list of what has changed over the past three months AND what I did on my summer vacation.

Costa Rica for 9 days: 4 teachers, 25 kids, 3 sloths, countless coffees.

AP Language workshop AT THE BEACH

AP Seminar workshop in Chicago with 2 new colleagues

NEW SCHOOL!! 3 new classes

daughter w concussion

12 books (2 more on the way)

Lost weight

Gained weight

Deep dish Chicago-style pizza for the first time. life will never be the same

36 college recommendations written, more to come

02 July 2015

BLACK SWAN GREEN, David Mitchell

One of my most memorable reads of the year, and my first David Mitchell, is still dazzling me months later. (Black San Green is actually the name of Jason Taylor's suburb. ) He is disturbed, eloquent, sweet, bawdy in a 13-year-old kind of way, unintuitive and unable to be anyone but himself. That last part is the trouble: no one accepts a 13-year-old who is true to himself, so Jason gets beat up on a regular basis. He has a rough time of it--an unrelenting stammer, a highly developed intellect which does not usually work in his favor, and a vicious internal life--he names his alter egos the Unborn Twin, Hangman and Maggot. But his talent for language (I know, ironic) and the picaresque episodes with unexpected allies put him in the driver's seat for the bildungsroman which is 8th grade. He emerges victorious, to take the challenges of 9th grade on--whether he wants to or not.
This is a YA adult book that treats the YA reader as intelligent, thoughtful and curious. Just  like most of the 8th graders I know. *****

15 March 2015


N.B. I wrote this as a reflection after a learning day at school.    

Friday was a professional development day at my school, and to my delight, we got some choice. I began the day with iBook Author, since I am planning to create my own British Literature textbook to take advantage of the 1-1 iPad initiative. I enjoyed my hour of screencasting, since the earlier tools I had used were outdated and limited in features. Screencast-o-matic is going to be great. So next I chose a webinar discussing student engagement and flipped learning. The presenters are well-known practitioners, having penned several “how tos” over the past 10 years, so it seemed like a good follow up to my screencasting workshop. I like the idea of flipped learning, because it gives students control by definition, but could never see how it would be much different than my traditional English classroom. Kids read at home, and then come to school and we discuss or make projects or write. What could be different about flipped learning for me? I knew that Khan Academy was not flipped learning, though videos were involved. So my plan was to listen to the webinar to discover more about flipping.

   Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams began by noting that flipped learning depended on relationships, and relationships meant engagement. The discussion was organized around the principles of engagement, the techniques to implement, the hurdles to success and training the teacher AND the children. They noted that fewer children arrive at school from “educationally privileged” households in 2015, so schools must work differently to capture those students and “meet them where they are.” This is not true at St. Mark’s, but even at our school, I have noticed less support of the academic mission at home over the past 5-6 years—no time? 

  My most important takeaway might have been their point about the Bloom’s taxonomy and how teachers approach it: if a teacher sends a child home to do the hard stuff alone (analyze, evaluate, create) then the teacher has relinquished her strongest learning tool. We should be doing the hard stuff together, in school. That is why students need me! I am feeling good about reading “A Modest Proposal” aloud in class together last week and then having students work on questions independently. What I modeled as we read was how to pick out particular strategies and how they complemented purpose. My independent practice questions required the rehearsal of that skill.

   The second point that rang true came when they discussed curated versus created content. This is where the screencasting will come in: the learning that happens at home must be tailored by the teacher for her particular students. This is not a tough point for me. Once I decided to eschew textbooks for anthologies a few years ago, I was forced to create my own ancillary materials. Even now, my students are always more successful when I tweak the curriculum and projects to fit the students I have, instead of the students I have had. If I am going to flip a class, the videos for independent learning must be mine. I am always surprised when teachers use boilerplate lessons or materials and then are irritated that students do not succeed. The only downside to created content? It takes time.

   Overall, this was a good introduction to flipped learning delivered by two experts. It was an overview of the purpose and process. Both speakers noted at the conclusion that they were planning more subject and grade level specific books in the future. I will check in on their website. To date, no one has done anything really good for secondary reading and writing in a flipped manner.

Flipped Learning: Gateway to Student Engagement
with Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams

13 February 2015

Cheating: Academic or behavioral issue?

Another chapter is my personal investigation of cheating...

Is cheating an academic or a behavioral problem? That question was posed to me by my principal last week, and I was not prepared for the myriad of questions and emotions it aroused in me. I do not think I can answer with either word. Here is what I do know:

1. Most students cheat or know and witness cheaters every day. They also know that teachers do not catch cheating 90% of the time.

2. Most teachers punish cheating with a call to the parent, a visit to the Dean or a point penalty, or a mixture of these consequences.

3. Students who do not cheat resent the lack of punishment for those who do. They doubt their motivation to be honest.

4. Honor codes are just window dressing, because they are not really enforceable.

5. When kids cheat, the teacher does not know if they learned what they need to learn to move to the next step. The teacher may not know that they are not ready, since cheating is so hard to document.

6.  A 0 on an assignment signals to a student that they have not achieved mastery. In my class, you only receive a 0 if you did not do the assignment or you cheated.

7. In my experience, it is the more adept students who cheat more regularly. More expectations for achievement--personal, familial, and school based, I suppose. Students with learning differences, on the other hand, often spend years being supervised as they practice study skills, sit in classes that are small and therefore more controlled. The result? They often possess stronger study skills, and more willingness to try on tests and essays. The routine of work is comfortable and something they can rely upon.

01 February 2015


   Just finished Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. Boy Novak is gifted with a snaky bracelet when she becomes engaged to Arturo Whitman. (Yes, that is right—no diamond.) She spends the months before her marriage worrying that Arturo believes she is evil and a witch because of this gift. Marries him anyway, and discovers HE is the one with secrets soon enough.
   She wonders over her stepdaughter, suspiciously named Snow (as in Snow White?) and sends her away when her own daughter, Bird, is born. An original contemplation on mothers and daughters fills this book, as I became more and more entranced by Bird and confused about who Boy Novak is and where she came from. Can't say more or I will spoil it.  Already have two students earmarked for this one.
   Can’t get this book out of my head.  http://mywildandpreciouslife13.tumblr.com/post/109773709735/minoan-goddess-priestess-just-finished-boy-snow

25 January 2015

Goodbye to Shakespeare

   I have had just about enough Elizabethan life for this year: our new schedule did not jive with my personal schedule, so I feel as if it has gone on forever. I am betting the students do too. This year was Macbeth, Lear and Othello. I am not sure how it went: I totally changed my approach to all three. For Macbeth, I focused on performance skills, but we have not been able to perform much because of schedule constraints. The best parts of Lear got swallowed up by Christmas break and midterms, so I am having trouble picking up the pieces. And in my first time with Othello, I decided to let the students be in charge. I think they enjoyed and learned, but of course this old read-write learner did not get her time in the sun as an expert. So I am recalibrating how I judge the unit.
   What is sticking with me this winter? I am chafing at the chains that come when I hold the control. My Macbeth classes do not happen to be filled with readers, so practicing the skills has been frustrating. Much of the end of the quarter was taken up by the kids who elected to "spark" Macbeth (and their personal reading too), and ending up cheating as a result. So I am sad that they did not give themselves a chance to level up their reading, and irritated that I spent my time on them instead of the students who came with me on the Shakespeare journey. But--sometimes those failures are the ones that provoke learning. Only time will tell.
   Lear was more satisfying, but we have not acted, and I don't want to let it go! At the same time, I can't wait for them to read Donne. This group will LOVE him. So I must navigate a quick ending and a new beginning for this week--during Catholic Schools Week. Argh. Othello was good with AP Lit; they appreciated and thought and analyzed. But I will have to get used to feeling good about their success instead of directing them. Old teacher, new methods. Growing pains.

29 December 2014


I have been in a self imposed Twitter embargo this fall: somehow discussing theory and strategy with other teachers was not what I needed. Information overload is real for me-my temperament demands that I be open, so I am always reading, talking, trying new things, in all parts of my life. But sometimes, I have to stop.  Since all my preps are familiar this year, I decided to concentrate on my lesson frames.  I figured that  I would focus on the business of teaching every day, doing the work every day. Seeing where it led for my skills-and theirs.

So it has been a relief to turn to my first, my core PLN, my students, as I travel this road. And last week, I was reminded in a big way of how delightful and fulfilling it can be to play the role of learner in the classroom.  A bit of setup: I am moderator of the Graphic Arts & Animation Club at my school, a hardy group of ~25 aficionados of anime, manga, Japanese culture, high school subculture, and gaming. It is the most diverse club in school ( and that is a big job in a parochial high school) and the guys and girls respect each other just as a matter of course. They are cool kids, and they try not to laugh at my anime inexperience most of the time. They even retweet my lame attempts at humor.

We held a Mario SMASH tournament to celebrate the day-before-Thanksgiving break and almost 50 kids showed up. I was the newbie in the room--and no one laughed at my questions, everyone shared their expertise, and it was my best teacher moment of the year, when they taught me about bracket strategy, the many decisions that go into choosing your avatar to complement your personal skills, and why SMASH is the perfect game. The games moved too fast for me to do anything other than marvel. Different kids laid out different strategies for me, because I asked the same questions over and over. Isn't that what a learner does?

Some of these kids have never spoken up in my class. Some of them had never spoken to each other in school. And here they were laying out the intricacies of game strategy for me, screaming at the top of their lungs during each match, waiting for their turns with no complaints, just loving what they knew and how it brought them together.

So what did I learn? I stink at these games. I dominate at building bridges. I am a good learner--games are as great a way to learn as a 1-year-old learns with peekaboo, a 4-year-old learns with T-ball or a middle school kid learns with a Nintendo DS (which I learned is only useful to get you through the day until you can get home to the system), and after that, every single team you practice with or game you play on your Xbox. So, yes, I am going to recalibrate my units to take advantage of the mastery my kids showed last week, the learning pathways that are embedded in their brains already. So much more useful than thinking about the Common Core testing.

25 October 2014

"New Criticism, Close Reading, and Failing Critical Literacy Again"

Every time I read a post from Paul Thomas, my teaching self stands up a little straighter. I read this take down of close reading, CC-style, at the end of my critical methods unit in AP Lit. Ouch.

" Like the mechanistic and reductive ways in which New Criticism has been implemented in formal schooling in order to control and measure objectively how students respond to text, CC and the focus on close reading are poised to serve efficiency models of high-stakes testing while also failing students who need and deserve the complex and challenging tools afforded with critical literacy."

Of course, doing a "Lit Crit Legends" mini-unit in an AP course is mostly about offering strategies to students for attacking the unfamiliar texts that always show up on the test. And part of our discussion centers on the artificial nature of criticism, and the parallel enjoyment someone can get from the intellectual exercise anyway.  This year, as we worked on one passage together in Tale of Two Cities, I felt the Dickens appreciation quotient double in the room that day. But I recognize that Thomas has a valid point regarding the futility of setting up a particular structure for analysis and then expecting the result to be a creative thinker.   It shows me that 1) I should be pleased that I address AP goals and skills so directly, and 2) I should feel just as disappointed as I do in stretching the reading process of my students into this convoluted and disrespectful form.

11 September 2014


Today I found myself telling a class that it did not matter what we read together, but that we practiced thinking critically about it all..they were flabbergasted. One girl said, "But, healigan, you LOVE Beowulf!" And I do, but mostly because it hardwired me to recognize a hero when I saw one walking down the hall--they liked that. The conversation happens every year, and the answer is taken differently every year. Critical thinking and writing is the skill to be practiced to create successful people. Why not read the stories that nudge the best of us out into the open?