18 July 2014


I  realized a while ago that my goodreads feed does not usually read like most of my friends' reads, regardless of age or gender.And I cannot fathom #bookaday (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.

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 is an obvious choice because  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 recharging it as I read. And Donna Tartt's book also seems to be a compendium of all her experience in 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. The belief 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 in is the book, for God's sake. There is a 4-page description of the proper way to eat Cap'n Crunch cereal in the Philippines set only a chapter or two away from to the illustrated iteration of the first generation of RAM as well as 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

Reading to come before August 18: 
How the Light Gets In-Louise Penny (book club)
The Book of Life-Deborah Harkness
Hild-Nicola Griffith
The Historian-Elizabeth Kostova
another Neal Stephenson book as demanded by daughter

26 January 2014

Educon 2.6

For my third Educon, I had fewer expectations: my school district is starting to chafe, so at most I hoped for a few ideas I could implement surreptitiously. But once again, I thought so small, and Educon is so big. One of my favorites session was with Josh Block and Tim Best's kids. They answered all kinds of questions about Project Based Learning, which I have been trying to implement where I can. Doing it on your own when it is not a school-wide strategy can be daunting. But here were these kids, answering rapid fire questions from teachers they did not know all about how their course works, how their learning belongs to them at SLA. I found myself imagining my kids and how high their confidence would rise with this approach. I redesigned my British mythology research project, due to start in 2 weeks, on the way home. Kudos to Josh, Tin and all their kids.

My favorite session was the Standards and Standardization conversation with Diana Laufenberg. And here is where I remembered my own big picture--that teaching is my vocation, not just my job, and I should not let shortsighted policies ever slow me down. We did not find answers, but I met great teachers and with Diana's help, we talked around the problems that don't have answers right now. But they will. The Common Core standards are not great, but they were not spawned in hell either. I will prevail.

And finally, I was not at Educon today because I am sick. This blog post is as coherent as conscious as I have been all day. And I can't miss school tomorrow because I want to see my kids and make some changes. They recharge me. This year, I hardly tweeted, I took no pics, but I remembered who I am, and what I can control. once again, Educon comes through. Thanks. Another cup of tea is coming...

03 January 2014

BLACK SWAN GREEN: Thank God that our teen years only last so long...

I am still processing a couple of issues for this blog: great kids in a tough year. So while you are waiting I will post this short review of one of my favorite reads last year, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell.

Five stars to David Mitchell's unrelentingly real portrayal of one boy's 13th year. Jason Taylor 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 he 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.

02 December 2013

Pandora's Box

 I have wanted to talk about this for a while, but have been afraid to open the Pandora's Box. Cheating is one of those things that teachers don't want to talk about--you must be a bad teacher if someone cheats in your class.  And if you do talk about it, a monstrous administrative machine rolls into action full of consequences (mostly for the teacher), extra work and infamy. I am never sure that a young person has gained anything from that experience. These days, you are likely to have the parents question your content knowledge and teaching skills if you mention the word about their child--it is a slur on their character that cannot be erased. And the embedding of the internet into every school activity has increased the possibility that someone plagiarizes unwittingly a hundredfold. It's complicated. 

    I know many who ignore it. I have heard myself saying, "I pay attention to the kids who are doing what they are supposed to. I will not waste my time on those who cheat." It is a way to get through the day, honestly. You know that certain types of students will always take the short cut. I know I do not "catch" a great percentage of them.  If I kept track of every phone in a pocket or iPad screen just to make sure everyone was honest, I would have lost my mind years ago. And no one (including me) would ever learn anything. I would be a prison guard if that was what I did with my time. But what teacher has not spent 30 minutes at least once finding the webpage that the kid plagiarized? You KNOW he cheated because he is not good enough at it to leave no trace, but honestly, some of them do not care that I could prove it. This is just the way the game is played, in their minds. Maybe they are right. But I still believe that part of my job is to help my students find their path to integrity, and I am old enough to be proud I never cheated. So I can be a model, at least.
   So what to do? I use an honor code* that students write and sign at the end of every major piece of work we do in class. I tell them  that if they cannot in good conscience sign it, then they need to come and talk about that with me.  I do not believe that the honor code stops cheaters, but it puts everyone on notice that I care what they do. And if I witness an incident that is clear cut enough to mention, then I start by reviewing my own actions—did I set them up for bad decision making? The answer is pretty much always NO. So we have to talk. And the conversation starts like this:
"You are practicing at being solid human beings. You make mistakes, I make mistakes.  So what do we do now? What do you think our path forward should be?"
I do not excuse them—everyone needs to reminded that right and wrong are always playing in the backchannel of life. But how to recover? Official handling of cheating often leaves that out.  It is usually about punishment. So the conversation continues:
"Come tell me. We will work out a path together." 
And we do. Sometimes it costs them a grade or call to a parent, but then we role play how to manage a 0 or survive the talk with a parent. Sometimes the solution is just between us. Sometimes I end up involving official channels. It depends on the student, what they need to get past it. This might be the most important interaction I ever have with that young person. I want to help them, but I also need to protect our class family life. They need to see how to build personal integrity. It is uphill all the way in this culture--high school, the 21st century, America--whichever culture you wish to consider. I know that this lesson is the one that needs to stick. It is more important than The Aeneid or Shakespeare, for sure. And I still want to find hope in the bottom of this Pandora's Box...

*I promise on my honor as a XXXXX student that I have neither given nor received help on this work.   
Signature, Date

26 November 2013

Senior World Lit: The Rules of Being Human

Everyone is responding to the 10 rules of being human, posted here. So I thought I had better add my 2   cents. My list is shorter though--the older I get, the shorter the list seems to get. ( What is the value of 2 cents these days, anyway?) Happy Thanksgiving to my "Insidious" seniors.

1. Listen to that feeling in your gut that tells you to do right. Then do right.

2.  Hang out with people who are good for you.  If they want to change you, are they really friends?
2. Don't judge people by their looks--either to their benefit or their detriment. By the time you are my age, what you look like will be the least part of what is precious in you.

3. Travel. When you can't travel, read. The world is bigger than what we can see. Write your reactions about travel down and make sure to judge the books you read.

4. I stole this one, but it is something I am still practicing: Figure out who you are, and then do it on purpose.

21 October 2013


   I just read Professor Nana's meditation on fringe reading, or reading in the wild, as Donalyn Miller's new book calls it (wonderful book), and I wanted to document for myself what reading means to me every day.
Right now I am reading The Spectacular Now(paperback), Dr. Sleep(hardcover), Ghost Story(Audible),  and the draft of a YA novel  (iBooks) written by an old friend of mine. These books are placed at different locations throughout the house. I read a daily poem every morning on Writer's Almanac in Homeroom, and a poem every night on my Poem Flow phone app. I am an English teacher, so the day is peppered with re-reads to prepare for class as well--today I read excerpts from the Wife of Bath's Tale, Book I of the Aeneid, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. I also paged through my dad's copy of Nourathar, a book about visual music from the mid-20th century. He has dementia, so moments when we can talk about what sticks in his mind are precious. We both agreed that the author of Nourathar was odd, if not crazy. It is just what he would have said five years ago, so I think we had a good visit today.

   All this does not count the news, Twitter and Tumblr. It does not count the 25 or so reading journals I am about to read. I love to read, that's clear. But more than that, I love to read because it reminds me that I am not alone, even when I AM alone. It fills my heart with story and reminds me how alike my students and I are. It gives me my dad for an extra half hour. It helps me see the future when the quotidian passage of the days seems to deny it. Mostly, it reminds me that being human is mostly about the parts of myself I cannot see or touch. There is no way to thank God for the gift of my life and the threads that tie me to every other human being. We are amazing creatures, we humans. We live stories, we tell them, and then we write them down. We are blessed.

15 September 2013


It has been a great first week with my young friends: I already have a novel draft, 30 college essays, an Eagle Scout narrative and a new list of anime enthusiasts on my desk. What these students give to me is themselves, and I am humbled by it. But I am always struck by the intensity of this first week, with that sea of faces that is just beginning to transform into my cherished family for 2013-2014. They challenge me to care, to make strong connections with them, and as in any relationship, the beginning is fragile.

It reminds me how desperately fragile teen-dom is. First week always reminds me that every one of them deserves my full attention, deserves to be looked at with wonder. Even though they are adults, which I am reminded of every time I look up, way up, to talk with someone, they are still in need of my experience, my confidence and my trust. Somebody needs to consider that child to be the most important, beautiful thing they have ever seen for at least a minute, every day. I looked around my classroom this week and saw some faces sad, overwhelmed, distracted. I can see that they do not know how seriously cool they are. No one has told them how cool they are.

Each of them is one of kind, so perfect: but they label themselves, and we label them too (I've done it, I know). Sometimes they judge each other instead of chanting "vive la difference" (this phrase came up in one class this week). I don't care if he talks too loud in social situations or she does not wear the right makeup or he doesn't do "enough activities" or the backpack is uncool. Most of my students are just trying to get through the day, like me.  To my students: I am honored to witness  your grit, your beauty, your  imagination, your self-reliance, your sweetness, your brains, your laugh, your humility, your love for your friends, your heart and your soul. Even if I don't always say it. Let's do this.

14 September 2013

It's a process not a schedule

Sir Ken Robinson in his book The Element proposes that teachers are farmers, not engineers. Thank you, Sir Ken. I am a lover of seeds and dirt and a rusty trowel in the form of my Norton anthology just as much as the next creaky English teacher. But I was reminded that my farmer status is not always helpful this second full week of classes as I wrestled with our new schedule. I am pretty sure it is going to turn out to be the best thing that has happened to our school, but right now, my brain is screaming "it's a process, not a schedule."  I long for a simple, uninterrupted set of days for me to set up classroom routines and get to know my young friends better. I am never going to get this. Instead, we seem to be rushing through assemblies, iPad workshops, prayer services, club showcases and time-period-hopping duties. If  you are a teacher reading this, you are probably laughing "It is September. Chill out Healigan, October is coming." If you are a student, you are wondering why I am making such a big deal. It is always like this at the beginning of the year.

Farmers live by the sun and the weather. I yearn to plow the dirt with Beowulf, plant seeds by hand with our close reading together, water those seeds with my suggestions for each new blog post and watch the seeds sprout into miraculous young people who will own their futures.  Engineers use nature to create a better version of the process. I think I need an engineering class. Time to visit twitter?

25 August 2013

iPADS: More Dangerous Than You Think

That's the joke I have been telling this past week as I limped around campus with my cane. I broke a bone in my foot during a 1-1 iPad planning meeting in July. But having completed our faculty training sessions this week in preparation for the arrival of the students on Monday, I am starting to believe it. I facilitated three workshop sessions on Evernote for my colleagues. I am not sure who learned more--my "students" or me.
The iPad IS dangerous, dangerous for anyone who thinks it is only a small laptop, or just for games, or a luxury toy. Those who belittle or it or dismiss TOUCH as a gimmick find themselves looking around, left out in less than 5 minutes in the classroom, boardroom or family room. We have forgotten that a powerful tool can be fun. And fun it was last week. Here are the lessons this facilitator took home after 4 hours with her colleagues:

1. Always have Plan B, Plan C and maybe even Plan D ready when technology is on the agenda. I only had Plan B for the first session. Lesson learned for the next two. I even used Plan D for one of the sessions. Anticipating what will go wrong is your best strategy. Did you read that right? Yes, I failed at my first workshop. The school wifi did not help, but I could have done better. It is OK. That "learning is messy" meme? All true.

2. Touch Screens are the great equalizer. Every special ed teacher in the workshops had a smile on her face within 10 minutes. An auditory learner, someone who cannot wield a pencil, or a kid with severe ADHD is just as entranced as anyone with the iPad, and has convenient tools easily available to limit the gap between how they work and how everyone else does. Suddenly they are not so different anymore. This one gives me happy chills for the future of all our kids.

3. Interacting with the screen changes the way you interact with the text, problem or graph that you are studying. At the simplest level, you can touch a word and see the definition. At a more analytical level, creating a web clip in Evernote involves critical thinking and decision making that I struggle to teach when we are just googling in class. Students don't have to think about the process: no more formatting index cards to create a standardized pack of pieces of info for research. Instead, students can concentrate on making judgments about the info they find, right as they find it.

4. The teacher no longer has to be the purveyor of all knowledge. Collaborative learning is de rigueur with an iPad. Every question "how do I..." was answered with what I already knew, and then with a second option too. In the case of Evernote, the ancillary apps are so well designed that I never  introduced them--someone asked and there it was (Skitch, Penultimate, Peek to start). And when I did not know, I opened it up to the group, and someone figured it out within minutes.

There is more, much more, but these few items confirmed my instincts when I first opened my iPad two years ago. EVERYTHING we do can change to fit what our children will need in their personal toolboxes when they "go west, young people." And technology is no longer the tool we use. Technology, in the form of the iPad, makes teachers model learning to fit the needs and dreams of your kids.

I cannot wait for school to begin.


   Two years ago,  I planned for a senior class which blended Honors Seniors and AP level seniors. The AP level seniors had elected not to take AP Lit, so they came to me. I figured that if they were willing to do a little extra work (1 mini project a quarter), then they deserved the extra quality points. We would design how that happened as we went along. I thought the college essay would be a great way to bond the blended class-ha!
    Unfortunately, I was taught by their unremitting insistence upon resting on their AP laurels that sometimes things do not go as expected, especially the college essay.  I dragged them kicking and screaming through some innovative (my judgment) mini projects that I will assign to my Honors students this year, because they could have been fun.  But I am going to try the college essay again this year, as I embark on the senior journey with another blended class. I have been reviewing college essays from students for whom I write recommendations since I began teaching at my school, and am always upset at the gap between what I knew about the student and how little of that showed up in the college essays. Students that I knew were going to win at the college game came across as uninvolved and boring. And those AP level essays read like laundry lists of what kids think adults needed to hear. Yawn.

   To no one's surprise but my own,  the best essays came from the students who were not afraid to think about themselves and their futures "outside the box."  I admit that the Common App prompts are dicey--I would not know how to start with some of them! The Guidance Department tells them the essentials about the process, so I can take the indirect path to college essay genius. We will listen to a few of  NPR's This I Believe segments, and use that prompt as a way to start.  If you have not listened to This I Believe, you should. They are essentially 2-3 minute personal essays detailing what it is that the speaker feels defines them as a person. We always start with Jackie Robinson's.  Yes, Jackie Robinson. This I Believe has been around that long, and is still that good. So, the first time we did this, the higher level students had a tough time letting go of their high grades being the defining trait of their personalities last time, but we got through it. This I Believe confounded most of them at the beginning.  The college application process is, to an extent, about how well you did in school, but the best essays came from the interesting kids, no matter their level.

   And my only job in this redo of the assignment? I will tell them to write about themselves and what THEY judge to be most important about their experiences: write about yourself, remembering what you believe. This year, we will be sharing our essays with each other, after the trauma of college admissions letters arriving February through April. Revisiting their September essays in April will be a good exercise in self-reflection: another critical skill for a successful adult.  Wish me luck.