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 I enjoyed my hour of screencasting, since the earlier tools I had used were outdated and limited in features.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. The best parts of Lear got swallowed up by Christmas break and midterms, so I am having double 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?

04 September 2014


I  realized a while ago that my goodreads.com feed does not usually read like most of my friends' reads. And I cannot fathom the #bookaday crowd (yes, I know if you teach younger kids than I do, that it is all about modeling and recommendations. But I would miss my personal choices so much. I could not do it.) I don't write long reviews, though I could. Most of my reviews are aimed at the possible reader, usually a teen. I try to distill the book into a few sentences that reveal topic iced with my emotional response. Then I am done.  And the books at best take meandering paths that may never meet at a common destination. Who am I as a reader? It is changing. I feel this foreshadows another shift in my teacher profile, as usual.

Two very different books have captured the deepest part of my reader soul this summer: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. The Goldfinch, an obvious choice: I am an English teacher who loves Dickens. For the first time, those who airily told me it was Dickensian were right. What I love about Dickens is his panoramic love of the almighty Word, his placement of his characters always into the larger context of the world, the intersection of intellect, emotion and spirit than he calls out of you as you read, his utter confidence that good is absolute in the world.  No one is just a villain, a lover, a father, a demon in his works. There is a greater system at work in the world and Dickens is charging it as I read. And Donna Tartt's book also seems to be a compendium of all her experience, feeling and thought about the world. To my delight, a central theme in protagonist Theo Decker's life is one that even my least engaged student would recognize as a theme in each of my courses:  "And isn't the whole point of things-beautiful things- that they connect you to some larger beauty?" Yup, this is a book about a boy whose entire life is about protecting his possession of the most beautiful thing in the world-which may turn out to be his very existence. He loses his family, finds a new one, becomes a drug addict and an antiques expert simultaneously, and finds himself on the wrong end of a dangerous drug deal stranded in Amsterdam without a friend. But he always has his goldfinch-or at least he thinks he does. It turns out to be more important than having it, by the way. The book is panoramic, profound and full of allusions that I would never have seen 20 years ago. Yet another reason to be perfectly fine with getting older, and loving Dickens/Tartt too. 

But then we have  Cryptonomicon, a 1000-page origin story of the Enigma code, the digital computer and invention of RAM, the NSA, and all the people necessary to tell the story. Alan Turing i really  in the book!!! There is a 4-page description of the proper way to eat Cap'n Crunch cereal in the Philippines, very close to the illustrated iteration of the first generation of RAM and the extremely scientific connection between masturbation and effective code breaking. One of the characters invents the digital computer, calling it the compute-er. It is a wild ride requiring commitment, a comfort with the dizzying speed at which Mr. Stephenson invents words and worlds and then plops you down into an easy chair to enjoy the thorny but hilarious path to true love. Everything about this book SCREAMS epic. And yet, just like Tartt's book, there might be a writerly preoccupation with creating something beautiful, and just, and important. 

Is this why I loved both books? Probably not--it's too symmetrical. But they each seem to feed some part of me that needs to be fed. I feel as though I am a puzzle piece in the transition from a book world to a digital world. I do know that I will be referring to each of them this year as I design a track for each class I teach. Sometimes the books I don't teach are the ones that control the ones I do. 

*Read This Summer
Gun Machine-Warren Ellis
Cryptonomicon-Neal Stephenson
We Were Liars-E Lockhart
Deep Blue-Jennifer Donnelly
Identical-Ellen Hopkins
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown-Holly Black
The Tea Rose-Jennifer Donnelly
Snowpiercer-Vol 2
Mr Mercedes-Stephen King
The Goldfinch-Donna Tartt
How the Light Gets In-Louise Penny 
The Book of Life-Deborah Harkness
Hild-Nicola Griffith

Sharpe's Eagle-Bernard Cornwell
Waterloo-Bernard Cornwell
The Maze Runner-Dashner
Ancillary Justice-Ann Leckie

22 August 2014


Just catching my breath after our prep week--new website, new books, new classes, new schedule. Last year, there was no time to reflect with 6 classes, so I have to remember how to do that for this year. Here we go.

Our new school website, including a new course management tool, went live this week. I was among the presenters who introduced our "Academic Groups" pages to all the other teachers. Three meetings and many hours of play over the last three weeks set me up for Wednesday's 60 min preso to ~25 teachers plus the principal (gulp). I was on learner overload during the prep sessions! The process was a typical tech learning curve-nothing worked, the functionality went in and out, and the vendor kept turning the site on and off as we tried out all the features. But we had fun, and learned together, and even strategized how other teachers could be soothed when this stuff happened to them. Hardest class in the world to teach? TEACHERS.

So here is what I learned sitting in a tech lab with 5 other tech-y teachers. We are all alike in our curiosity, our willingness to screw up and laugh at it, and our desire to work together. At no other time during the year will I probably spend extended time with these folks--we all had different temperaments and areas of expertise. Didn't matter this summer. What mattered was the topic at hand and how many ways we could un-code the website. How this looked and sounded reminded me of exactly how my room looks when I throw out a challenge to a class and they have to solve the problem without me. It was loud, and we were all talking at once, and at least two people were rocking more than one device at a time. Everyone announced their superior approach the group at large, whether anyone asked or not. People jumped up to run across to check someone else's screen out whenever they needed to. All of this was happening while the Tech Director had a preso up on the Smartboard and was trying to present to us. We even laughed that we were 21st century learners-which was actually a snarky comment, since most of us at one time or another has made fun of people who still call it that--14 years into the 21st century.

But as I worked the room this week at the actual session, I noted at least three levels of comfort in the room with my colleagues. At the same time, I noticed some of my colleagues were unhappy with others yelling out questions or calling out successes. And there are always adults who are consternated by my room set up--not rows, more like mini centers. So if you are 50 years old and you are used to finding a seat near the front so you can be near the teacher, what do you do when there are 12 "front row" seats and the teacher does not stand still? I needed folks to help each other, since the class was so large. I sensed that most of the class was on target, but not everyone was happy. It is a vulnerable feeling to know that you are laying your teaching soul bare to other teachers who may not get your approach. And no teacher spends time in class describing why she teaches the way she does--the whole collaborative thing is CRITICAL for our kids, so my adult learners needed to test drive collaboration themselves. I hope that they got enough to work on their own. I won't be giving a test so they know how well they learned!
outline of exhausted teacher

14 August 2014

GRAPHIC NOVELS in the ELA CLASSROOM, High School Edition

Somehow, without planning it, I have begun a graphic novel shelf in my classroom library. My Anime Club kids pushed me to read some manga, which is cool, but I found myself wanting more solid stories, so graphic novels started jumping out at me whenever I was at the bookstore. They are intense reading experiences! Most of the ones I have grown to love have required second reading just because my "print" mind cannot always decipher the sophisticated layers of story added by the art. And then so many series use different artists for each issue, so I am learning two new authors with each new episode. Kids don't seem to mind, though. They eat them alive. I have decided not to add my favorite manga to the mix though--I have so little space, and they are like cotton candy. I could not have only one volume of Death Note or Scott Pilgrim--it would spark a mutiny.
So how do I choose the right graphic novels? I started with authors whose names I knew--mostly because of movies made of their books, I guess--and so my early choices were the "classics" as far as I could decipher:  Harvey Pekar, Lynda Barry, Art Speigelman, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel, etc etc. I am reading As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gilman as she draws it right now online, and some of my favorite purchases this summer have been Boxers and Saints by Gene Yang, both volumes of Snowpiercer and Templar. I have also dabbled in Warren Ellis (Crecy, Gun Machine), and a student gave me Polarity-about an musician/artist whose superpower is his bipolar-ity.  And I would not be an English teacher if I did not have Kill Shakespeare  in my room and Grant Morrison's Supergods. A few of the novels into comic books are OK-but that brings back memories of those Classic Comics that all the boys in my neighborhood read when I was a kid. The paper was flimsy, the ink smeared,  and the best parts of the story were always left out in my 12-year-old female opinion.

When I review this list though, it is heavy, really heavy on literary-type storytelling, which can be a tough sell for most kids. And some of these are incredibly dark, cynical, violent and even misogynistic (that is for another post). I don't want them in my room if I am not going to be able to accompany their reading of them with discussion of difficult themes, images and styles.  I have avoided the superhero stuff, cause the kids already read those. I did get 3 new converts to Gaiman's Sandman this year, and am thinking of adding a few issues of Lock & Keye by Joe Hill.  And shouldn't I have Matt Fraction in there somewhere? And I NEED to read Tank Girl asap.  So here is my list to date. What am I missing? What should I remove?

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
American Splendor
V for Vendetta
Locke and Key
Sandman (3 vol)
Boxers and Saints

Snowpiercer, vol 1 & 2
The Griff
Kill Shakespeare, vol 1 & 2
The Modern Mariner-Nick Hayes rocks!
Graphic Canon, vol 1 & 2

My Goodreads list, still under construction:

My beginning list of places to go for recs: