By Jeni Gearhart
16.1 million adults (6.7% of the population) have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.
Last year, I was one of those 16.1 million.
I have gone through four distinct depressions in my life. My first year of college, my first year after graduating college, my first year of teaching, and last spring/summer. You don’t need to know my entire history to realize that it is a factor that has affected my life as an adult.
It has not, however, defined my life.
Depression has made me a better teacher. That is the story I want to tell.
Depression has made me more empathetic, more compassionate, and more passionate about my calling as a teacher. Truthfully, though I absolutely hate those periods of my life when I experience depression, those “lows” make me far more appreciative of the joy felt outside of it.
Being prone to depression can make teaching difficult. When you barely feel able to get out of bed, the idea of being “on” for 8+ hours, let alone energetic and happy in front of 30 teenagers can feel insurmountable. Planning an engaging, thoughtful lesson can be incredibly difficult when simply making decisions on what to pack for lunch is nearly impossible.
And yet, teaching keeps me afloat when I feel at my worst. My students give me joy. Pretending to be happy for them makes me feel just a little bit happier for myself. Teaching gives me purpose. My students get me out of bed on those days.
Last summer, when I experienced my worst depression in ten years, teaching pulled me out of it. Well, teaching, a support system of caring confidants, and antidepressants.
I cannot oversimplify this story. This depression is the one that changed my narrative. At the encouragement of close friends, I sought medical help and was prescribed antidepressants for the first time. I was afraid to take them. The stigma of depression made me fear what it meant to be “medicated”. In my depressed state, I feared that I would be judged. I judged myself, even. Why couldn’t I beat this on my own? I chose to take the medication, and it was one of the best decisions for my overall health and wellbeing.
As of August 1 of this year, I have been on antidepressants for one full year. I’m so glad that I forced past both the stigma and my personal fear and made this decision.
As I mentioned before, this depression changed my narrative. I’ve experienced depression in the past, but not until this year have I recognized how essential it is that we normalize the conversation about mental health. Mental health is as important as physical health.
As teachers, we need to be reminded of this fact. We already don’t take care of ourselves. By default, most of us are overinvolved. We have our school responsibilities, extracurriculars, and community commitments. There is more paperwork every year, and less time to do it. The needs of our students (physical, emotional, intellectual) are overwhelming. We feel underprepared and unable to take care of all their needs.
And, I would surmise that most of us got into this field because we have a big heart, and we feel deeply for our students. I would take a guess that the percentage of teachers who struggle with anxiety and depression is probably above the average for the general population (Health.com ranks us at #7 in their top 12 careers with high rates of depression).
We need to talk about our mental health. It is very easy as teachers to put on a show and hide what is going on beneath the surface. The expectation is that teachers are super humans. We have no first name, no opinions, and no personal life struggles.
Now, that does not mean that I should ever let my personal struggle interfere with my ability to do my job well. My students are not my counselors, nor do they need to know the specifics of my struggles. But, I do think that it is perfectly appropriate to tell students that I have dealt with depression and anxiety in the past. Does this matter for all of my students? No. But it starts to normalize the issue. It makes it OK for them to talk to their friends, me, a guidance counselor, or other trusted adults.
I am thankful to be a teacher who has experienced depression. When a student is struggling with depression, I get it. I recognize it, and I have a different level of compassion for them. Do I lower my expectations for them in my class? No. But, I give them grace and point them in the direction of those who can offer more help. I remind them that they are strong. They are capable. They are worthy. They are loved.
We talk about mental health in my English classroom. When we discuss characters who we would otherwise label “insane” (AKA: Lady Macbeth), I make it known that we are labeling their actions for a thematic purpose, but that there is far more beneath the surface that we are not told. When we discuss Hamlet, we also discuss Hamlet’s depression. And, of course, YA lit is full of these struggles.
A few years back, I got a sweet note from a student. A student who never talked to me specifically about her experience with depression. She thanked me for how I discussed mental health (offhandedly, I don’t think it was the purpose of my lesson). She said “Thank you for treating depression like it is something ‘real’, not something that just happens to ‘those other people’. You made my experience real. You made me ok.”
Teaching is hard. Life is hard. Both are so beautiful.
I’m so thankful to be a teacher who has experienced depression.
WVCTE is wondering...
As teachers, what conversations about mental illness should we be having? How do we maintain our mental health in an emotionally demanding profession?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
By Shana Karnes
I love to spend big chunks of my summer planning ways to revise and improve my practice. The season is always so full of hope, with opportunities to reframe my thinking and help my students be more successful.
But when the school year actually begins, it can be overwhelming to attempt anything from a major overhaul of your teaching to a few key shifts in practice. Every year, I read books, take classes, and obsessively jot ideas that never see the light of day when I’m faced with the reality of a fall full of fresh faces, administrative initiatives, and new courses to teach.
This summer, though, I’m working with a group of amazing teachers in Pipestem, WV during a National Writing Project summer institute. As we read and write and think and plan about argument writing, we’ve come across two key changes we can make that will withstand the crush of the reality of our profession.
Embrace the Wobble
One of our central texts for the institute is Pose, Wobble, Flow by Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen. This text makes lots of wonderful arguments for teachers to inhabit “poses” as more thoughtful, authentic practitioners through the metaphor of yoga. The idea is that when we try new things as teachers, we are trying to get into a pose. We inevitably wobble as we try to master this new stance, but eventually attain the flow characterized by doing this pose without thinking.
GODA (as one of our teachers refers to Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen)’s key argument is that the wobble part of this process is not only a necessary part of becoming a better teacher, but a desirable one--we must live in the gray area, a zone of proximal development, disequilibrium, or whatever else we might call it. “The P/W/F model is not about an endpoint,” GODA vehemently asserts; “it is a framework to help acknowledge how one’s practice changes over time and requires constant adaptation” (4). It’s only by being uncomfortable, by trying new things day or week or year in and out, that we can improve as teachers.
What this looks like in terms of our current theme of teaching argument writing is revising the way we think about the writing process to start from an inquiry-based place of research, then claim development, then argument articulation. This new mindset is requiring all of us to “wobble” as we try to conceive of it, and we’re wobbling in even our understandings of its many moving parts--what revision is, or what an argument can look like, or how we can use argument as a genre for developing our opinionated writing voices. As we’re flooded with unconventional ideas, mentor texts, thought processes, and assessment measures, we’re all wobbling with the confidence we’ll eventually reach flow.
But once we do--some time during the school year when things are going smoothly and planning and teaching are underway--we’ll need to yank ourselves out of our newly-found comfort zones and get back into a new pose, embracing the wobble of new learning once more.
This constant revision of our teaching is a simple way we can always strive to be better teachers--just embrace the wobble of continuous improvement.
Become a Writer
The second simple way we’ve discovered to guarantee an improvement in our teaching is to help shift our identities from mere teachers to that of teacher-writers. GODA strongly advocate for the many student-centered benefits of writing beside our learners, but there are so many benefits beyond the classroom that become possible when we simply write.
Outside the classroom, GODA suggest that teachers might become more engaged in improvement by:
Taking one or more of these eminently doable steps can help teachers “enact agency and make an impact on the profession” (27). I highly encourage anyone reading this to write for WVCTE, join us for a region-specific #wvedchat on Twitter, comment on this or other blogs, or join us for local workshops like our state conference in April. These simple activities will not only expose you to ideas to keep you in the “wobble,” but they’ll let you meet and engage with like-minded colleagues as interested in improvement as you.
Within your classroom, becoming a writer is equally valuable. If you read nothing else of Pose Wobble Flow, I encourage you to read the chapter on “Embracing Your Inner Writer: What It Means to Teach as a Writer.” These pages are chock full of suggestions for not only reasons to write, but ways to do it. From a survey designed to help you find your identity as a writer, to practical methods for joining writing communities on Twitter, Facebook, and even NaNoWriMo, to the ways the act of writing beside our students changes our teaching, this chapter is awesome.
Because “the changes that come about within our classrooms and with our students start with ourselves,” (80), writing is a necessary first step to becoming a better teacher. I hope, like me, you’ll begin keeping a writer’s notebook, blogging regularly, and writing beside your students every time you see them in class. Beginning to inhabit the pose of a writer--although I experience wobble within this identity almost daily--is doubtless the most helpful thing I’ve done to improve my practice as a teacher.
Whether you start with wobbling or writing this school year, I wish you a wonderful end of the summer and all the joy and optimism the fall always brings as we work to become better teachers every day!
What simple ways have you improved your teaching? Please share with us in the comments, on our Facebook page, or via Twitter!
Shana Karnes teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University. She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life. Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or find more of her writing about secondary readers-writers workshop at Three Teachers Talk.
by MK Jarvis
I don’t know about you, but I am experiencing the midsummer doldrums. The lawn-mowing is in hand, flower beds planted, tomatoes growing, windows washed, and curtains laundered. My mind is shifting into planning mode and I can feel the growing anticipation and anxiety of a new year. I’ve only been teaching a short while, so I’m still anxious about what the year will bring and how I will perform not only as a teacher, but as a class manager. Keeping control of my classroom while providing a safe and comfortable place for the students to learn is still a new skill for me. Maybe for some of you, too.
In the last two years I have read a lot about classroom management and discipline, and sought much advice from master educators. I have also found tons of help from teachers who have put themselves out there on the web creating websites, videos, and webinars about classroom management and discipline strategies along with stress management and relaxation tips for teachers. Let me introduce you to three tremendous individuals who have simply saved my life in the last two years.
Hailing from the UK, Rob Plevin has put together wonderfully helpful resources for new and experienced teachers alike. While a lot of Plevin’s Need-focused Teaching website deals with teacher-student relationships, one of his resources is a series of videos on how to handle and settle a noisy class.
I found Plevin when I was searching for advice on handling my rude, crude, and socially unacceptable 7th grade homebase my first year of teaching. This group of students was not only driving me crazy, but making life generally miserable for everyone. I was desperate and dreaded facing them every morning. Plevin’s videos about classroom management were a godsend. His advice was simple: keep the class out of the room, making non-confrontational conversation in the hallway, pointing out positive behaviors, until the students settled. Surely, that would never work. The next day of school I tried it and, lo and behold, it worked. After that, I devoured anything I could find of Plevin’s and have purchased a few of his books. His advice is solid.
Additionally, Plevin has another website called The Life Raft where he concentrates on helping folks “overcome life’s challenges” and live a more stress free and meaningful life using meditation and mindfulness. Not surprisingly, he focuses on educators. It’s worth checking out.
In my endless search for how to be a better teacher, I found a YouTube video of Jennifer Gonzales, creator of Cult of Pedagogy, going over her tried and true advice for teachers using a mini chalk board and a lot of good humor and honesty. Gonzales, a middle to higher ed teacher, has gathered a group of teacher nerds together to host a comprehensive website for educators. In this video she gives the invite to Cult of Pedagogy, and hints at all you might find there. Her site is not just for new teachers, though. She has book reviews and summer book studies, interviews with educators and authors and a podcast. One of my favorite posts is Find Your Marigold: The One Essential Rule for New Teachers. The title might say it’s for new teachers, but I’ll bet there are some mid-career and veteran teachers who could find wisdom there. She also has some products for purchase ranging from first days of school activities to technology lessons. She even has merch available--cool t-shirts and mugs. The site is well designed and attractive. My academic coach, who has been an educator for forever, was even impressed with Gonzales’s site and shared it with the other new English teachers in our county. Plus, it’s such a cool name for a gathering place for educators cuckoo for education, don’t you think?
Gonzales’ website is one that once you find yourself there, you must devour the entire site. There is so much good information from a teacher with experience in secondary and higher ed. Gonzales also has Pinterest boards for those of us who love being totally overwhelmed with information. Definitely make some time to become a part of the Cult before returning to school.
Michael Linsin of Smart Classroom Management is brilliant. He has taught elementary through high school for over 26 years and lived to tell about it. His specialty is, of course, classroom management and he has become that still, small voice (coming to me in an email every few days) over the last couple of years.
The philosophy behind Smart Classroom Management is pretty simple:
“Here at SCM, we believe in two principles thought by many to be on contradictory ends of the classroom management spectrum. On one side we believe in faithfully following a classroom management plan . . . On the other side we believe in creating a classroom that students love being part of, that they’re excited to come to every day” (Linsin).
Adhering to a management plan “holds students accountable” and should be executed without yelling, scolding or lecturing. Linsin believes if the classroom is not a hostile place, but somewhere the students feel safe and cared for, they will want to come to class and will be on their best behavior.
Linsin’s July 15th blog post 3 Promises for the First Day of School really sums up the SCM philosophy very well. Teachers make a promise to respect students, listen to them and help them, and follow the classroom management plan to the letter. Sounds simple, but even the best of intentions are often cast by the wayside. We want to be firm, fair, and consistent, yet it is very difficult sometimes, especially for those of us who are new at the teaching gig. Linsin guarantees that his advice works and I’m sure some of you veteran teachers know the method is ironclad. There are more than 400 articles on his site with more great advice about classroom management, dealing with behavior, and helping students succeed.
I am currently reading The Happy Teacher: 11 Habits of the Happiest, Most Effective Teachers on Earth by Michael Linsin. I just started reading it, but not surprising the first habit is saying no to any extra work that takes you away from the classroom. Any teacher would like to make that a habit.
It’s such a comfort to find help and advice that works.
WVCTE is wondering do you have advice that might save a teacher’s life? Is there a website or blog (besides this one!) you love and regularly go to for encouragement? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
By Karla Hilliard
Summer is great, isn’t it? You know that feeling? The read by the pool, lose track of days, backyard hangout kind of feeling? Isn’t it great when you can have unadulterated time with your favorite writers (or wines) without grading guilt? Don't you love when you can go to a Body Combat class at the gym and punch into wild oblivion just for the fun of it? Or what about how fantastic summer salads are? I mean seriously, have you tried the watermelon-and-feta orzo salad? You haven’t? Well what are you waiting for?!
You know this whole chill-vibe thing will end, right? You know it’s going to run out of gas pretty soon?
Because, you know that small pit of dread and little twinge of excitement upon seeing the first school supplies lining the shelves of Target? Are you, like me, like, “I should totally buy that adorable sign that says SLAY THE DAY for my classroom, but it’s only July and I’m not thinking about school until August!”? Or are you more, “WOW 50 cent composition books, SCORE!”?
Or are you a parent who’s all, “Why have I cleaned up this kitchen 15 times today? Why do we have only one lonely slice of bread when we just bought this loaf this morning? This morning! Why is my child pausing the song on this laptop with her actual butt? Why would she think that’s a good idea? Why, oh, why isn’t it time for school yet, oh em gee?”?
Ever felt this way?
And why am I asking you this? Why am I asking me this?
Because I’m thinking a lot about…What do I want to do with School Year 2017-2018?
How will I build a community of learners who feel safe, valued, and heard? How will I show my students that without them, there is only a shelf full of books and a few ideas, that there is no “me” in my classroom -- there’s only been and will forever be “we”? How will I impress upon them that I am not the keeper of the literary gate nor am I the only one responsible for their learning? How will we traverse the land of great literature this year and explore it together — explore the masterfully written novel, essay, poem, short story because it is the work of the course and of the heart?
How will I connect my students to their communities and inspire more ownership in them? How will I help students challenge their opinions, deepen their curiosities, and expand their worldview? Why should it matter that they do all of this — that they develop empathy, that they problem solve and innovate, that they discover knowledge, that they consider their responsibility to one another? Will I help my students become better people?
And how will I bring balance and focus to my classroom and life next year? How will I continue to explore the essential and the “definite yeses” of teaching and parenting and just being a person in general? How will I make it to the gym? How will I get my kids to dance on Wednesday at 4:00? How can I find my grading Zen?
And what’s my bigger responsibility? How do I advocate for kids? How do I stand up to the face of injustice, bigotry, prejudice, and hate? How do I teach my students and my own children there’s more than one way of being a human? How do we love those who are toughest to love? How do I fight for all students?
So, why am I asking?
To borrow a line from one of my favorite novels to teach, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” By the end of School Year 2017-2018, I hope along the way to discover a few new answers.
WVCTE is wondering...
What questions are you asking this summer as you consider a fresh school year? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
I'd love to hear from you! -- Karla
By Toni Poling
Most teachers are aware of the existence of the summer slide: the learning our students can lose over the summer without regular interventions, like reading. But, not all teachers realize that we, too, can suffer from the summer slide! The cure? Professional Development! Research tells us that teachers have the largest school-based impact on student achievement; if we aren’t current in our professional knowledge, how can we expect our students to continue to improve?
When I speak with new teachers about professional development, they sometimes are at a loss on where to go to find quality professional development. Below are just a few options that I can personally endorse that have enhanced my own professional practice.
West Virginia Center for Professional Development
We are fortunate to live in a state where we have been provided opportunities for excellent professional development through the West Virginia Center for Professional Development. Long before I was an AP teacher, I was attending AP trainings during the fall and summer that were provided by the WVCPD and the College Board. In the 13 years I have been a public school educator, I have attended 12 AP trainings by the WVCPD. Each and every session provided me with a wealth of materials that were adaptable to meet the needs of all my students, including those who were struggling below grade level. A wise mentor of mine once told me that if I set the bar high in my classroom in terms of expectations that all my students would strive to reach it and that has been my experience. The professional development I received through WVCPD helped me to do that!
National Board Certification
By far the most challenging and rewarding professional development I have completed, achieving my National Board Certification by and away had the most direct impact on my own instructional practices. The National Board Certification process forces a classroom teacher to become more reflective, data-driven, and thoughtful. There are reflective practices that I learned during my certification process that I have incorporated as organic pieces of my instruction. I truly believe I am a better teacher simply for having gone through this process. Through achieving National Board Certification, I developed my teacher autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
I cannot say enough about a good book study! Ideally, book studies work best when they are done in small groups or Professional Learning Communities where ideas can be shared and can grow through the input of fellow educators, but in the summer that can sometimes be difficult. I, personally, love to learn through reading (what English teacher doesn’t?!) and engaging in professional reading over the summer is both relaxing and stimulating to me! Below are a few professional texts I can personally endorse that changed my professional practice!
I was a little late to the party on the last two, but I’m so glad I added them to my summer reading list! I can’t stop jotting down ideas from those two books!
When I need a new professional title and I’ve exhausted my teacher-friend resources, I often peruse the books available from ASCD. ASCD’s motto is centered around learning, teaching, and leading and their professional publications are outstanding (i.e. Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind). Along with NCTE, ASCD is a go to source for me.
As teachers, we know our instructional strengths and weaknesses better than anyone else. Regardless of what professional development you choose to seek out to address your personal needs, your students will benefit! In the end, our learning leads to their learning.
WVCTE is wondering what your favorite professional development opportunities are? If you like book studies, what professional texts do you feel are musts in any teacher library?
BY: LIZ KEIPER
Raise your hand if you’ve ever struggled to teach your students about symbolism.
*Hand raise* I have.
And by teach, I mean teaching them to recognize, pull out, analyze, and meaningfully connect symbols in a text on their own. To recognize that an author is implying that something in a story is signifying a larger concept because that is really the author’s intent and not just because you, the teacher, magically says that it is.
I mean, teaching symbolism without telling them what symbolizes what in a story.
It’s hard. Moving young teens from the concrete, plot-based schema of their earlier language arts instruction to an analytical-thematic literature-based instruction is no small task, and I think that in some ways, it’s especially hard for me because I’m naturally inclined to analysis. “Don’t you see the symbolic significance of everything on this page??” I sometimes inwardly yell.
However, I had a lot of success this year teaching motif analysis through Baz Luhrmann’s 1997 film version of Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.
Now, I know that not every English teacher is a fan of this interpretation of The Bard’s tragic romance. However, this film is near and dear to my heart because for me, it represents a shift in my analytical abilities as a reader. I wasn’t always a fan of it—in fact, when we watched it my freshman year of high school, my teacher told us, “It has drugs, guns, and a cross-dresser! You’ll love it!”
But I far from ‘loved it’… I came away thinking it was one of the most absurd movies I had ever been subjected to watching. How could they say, “Give me my sword!” and pull out a gun? A gun is not a sword. Were the movie producers that insipid that they didn’t know the difference in time period weaponry? Oh, also, they didn’t drive cars in Shakespeare’s day. Major anachronism there.
Then, I took a Shakespeare class in college in which we read a Shakespeare play every week, analyzed it in class, then watched a film version of the play and wrote an analysis of the story’s portrayal in visual form. And when we got to Romeo and Juliet, my professor chose… the 1997 version. Joy. I got to watch the worst movie I had ever seen twice.
But as I watched the film as a senior English major with almost four years of literature analysis under my belt, my opinions on this film began to change.
I started noticing that there were a whole lot of uses of water in the movie. In the beginning of the film, Juliet is submerged in bath water before the party, and at the party, that shot is replicated as Romeo submerges his head in a sink. Then, when they see each other for the first time, it is through a fish tank filled with… water. During the balcony scene, they fall into a pool filled with… water. Mercutio is killed at the beach which contains a lot of… water. When Tybalt is shot, he falls backwards into a pool of… water. Oh yeah, and it’s raining. Water.
So, I wrote my analysis for that play on the use of the visual motif of water in the film and how it was used as a medium of transformation or baptism of the characters in the story. I was astounded that there was so much significance that I had missed in the film as a high school student.
As I began to teach Romeo and Juliet to my students and also show the 1997 version of the film in conjunction with the unit, I encountered some students who had the same reaction that I had in high school. “They shoot guns and drive cars. It’s dumb. It makes no sense.”
I wanted to take them further and challenge them to see the depth of what the movie producers were saying through the film as I had. So, this school year before I showed the film, I started off with a mini-lesson on the word “motif.”
I gave my students the definition of “motif,” which is “a reoccurring symbol.” Then, we discussed the motif of birds/flight in the movie and book Divergent. I asked them first to list the instances in which birds or flight were important in the book or film Divergent.
“Tris gets a bird tattoo,” says one student. “Birds attack her in her fear landscape,” says another. “She’s the first to jump into the Dauntless training center, which is kind of like flying,” says one. “And she rides on that zip line thing, which is definitely like flying!” chimes in another. “Ummm, well, I haven’t seen the movie, but there are birds in the background of the movie cover,” says another timidly.
And there are.
In fact, birds and the concept of flying are woven throughout the film and the text. If it occurred once or twice, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but since it occurs over and over again, that’s a hint that it might be a motif and that, at least, it is significant.
“So, what could birds represent in Divergent?” I next ask my class.
“Well, they could symbolize freedom, since birds can fly wherever they want,” says one student. “Yeah, and joining Dauntless and riding on the zip line were major steps for Tris in finding her freedom!” says another. “Why were there birds in her fear landscape, then?” I ask, playing devil’s advocate. “Maybe because she wanted freedom but also feared it,” a student remarks. Yes, child, yes. Now we’re getting somewhere. Never knew there was so much depth to some bird tattoos, did you?
I then explained to my students that we were going to use a similar model of analysis while watching the film Romeo and Juliet. I gave them a sheet of paper that had four major motifs in the film listed:
While watching the film, students had to write down at least three times when they noticed a use of those motifs.
The day after we finished the film, I broke the students up into groups of four or five. I gave each group a motif to focus on. Their first task as a group was to pool all their examples for that motif and make one long list of all the occurrences of that motif in the film.
Once they had all shared their examples for their assigned motif and had written them down, as a group they had to start discussing what they thought that motif could symbolize and why.
The most beautiful English class conversations then ensued. Some groups determined that water represented a transformation or new life, or that it represented both love and death (like the symbolism of the plant rosemary mentioned by the nurse to Romeo).
Groups talked about fire and light representing the violence and destruction of the family feud, or representing passion—both of anger and of love.
Clothing was determined to portray aspects of a character’s personality. (I mean, is it a coincidence that Juliet is dressed as an angel, Romeo as a knight in shining armor, Tybalt as a devil, or Lord Capulet as a Roman emperor? I think not.)
Some groups determined that the ever present religious figures presiding over almost every scene showed religion as a force of unstoppable fate in the story. Others saw the devotion to religion as a mirror of the devotion of Romeo and Juliet for each other.
Each group shared their motif with the class, and the class took notes on the motifs of each presenter so that at the end, they had a full list of film motifs and their analyses.
This method of film analysis definitely strengthened my students’ understanding both of how motifs work and also how Shakespeare uses motifs in Romeo and Juliet as well. One of my students wrote in her final essay about fire and light in the film, “The first time Romeo sees Juliet, he remarks about her beauty, ‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!’ (1.5.42) This is interesting because in the movie when they actually meet, they are in a dimmer area before hopping into a bright, gold elevator. This is representative of the strong emotions between the two teens.”
I would highly recommend using this activity with any visually significant film adaptation of a story. I think that this activity would work well with another Baz Luhrmann film, The Great Gatsby, Rupert Goold’s 2010 interpretation of Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart, or Sean Penn’s 2007 version of Into the Wild to name a few. Regardless of the film you use, young teens struggle at times to connect symbolic significance to motifs structured in a text, and it is easier for them to connect this way with visual motifs. Analyzing visual symbols in a film can be the scaffolding that they need to understand how symbols work in a text.
Recognizing how an author is using symbolism in a text exponentially increases the message of the themes that he or she is trying to portray. Let’s help our students get more out of what they read… and what they watch.
How do you include film analysis in your English Language Arts classroom? What other skills might film analysis introduce or reinforce?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
By Kate Harpel
New school year. New schedule. What’s not new is my yearly need to scrap almost everything I did previously and try something new. It’s a vicious cycle and one not made any easier by the addition of an infant. As a teacher who delights in making teen slang uncool and engaging learners with unexpected connections to the things they love (like the Fallout: New Vegas easter egg *cough*allusion*cough* depicting Indiana Jones’s skeleton in a refrigerator), I found it hard to keep up with popular culture while measuring my life in late night feedings and dirty diapers. One pop culture phenomenon, however, rose up and revolutionized Broadway--Hamilton: An American Musical.
I gave Hamilton a shot with my on-track sophomores, and believe me it was not an easy sell when I announced that we would be studying a musical. We also had to have “the talk” about why writers use strong language and why this particular language was critical for the authenticity of this reimagining of the Founding Fathers; needless to say, my students didn’t mind the language. While the experience was nowhere near perfect, I found by the conclusion of the unit that my students and I had learned more than we had bargained for. At the end of the school year, I caught a few of my sophomore boys making Hamilton references, and a few remembered the rap battles fondly despite hating them during the unit. If you are willing to give it a shot...
Here are a few ideas inspired by and adapted from a curriculum I purchased from TPT seller, Barraug Books and Curriculum authored by Deborah Aughey as jumping off points:
There is so much that you can do with Hamilton: An American Musical. Feel like doing character analysis? Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton are perfect foils. Want to dive into historical documents? The Federalist Papers would be excellent fodder for close-reading protocols, and The Declaration of Independence would be a great talking point for analyzing “The Schuyler Sisters” or vice versa! Want to prank your students? A strategically placed, handwritten love letter would be great for you to secretly share with the students. Take one of Hamilton’s love letters to his wife and paraphrase it so that it sounds like something the students would write; they will go ham (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself) over Hamilton affectionately calling his wife a nut-brown maid or as I called her, a Cocoa Puff.
Whether you choose to give Hamilton a shot or not, consider trying something new this school year. My students much preferred analyzing lyrics and videos as opposed to classic literature, and while we still do the latter it was fun to make those text-to-text references in the year. This fall, I may not do a full Hamilton unit (unfortunately many of my sophomores have me as juniors in American literature next year), but I will certainly incorporate more media analysis in an attempt to further engage and challenge my students. Somehow we’ll make it, in the words of the Schuyler sisters:
What will you be giving a shot this year? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
And for the complete Hamilton curriculum that inspired this post, be sure to check out Barraug Books and Curriculum.
Kate Harpel teaches English and Mythology at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. She is a West Virginia native, a graduate of the Benedum Collaborative 5-Year Teacher Education Program at West Virginia University, and has been teaching for the past four years. A full time mother to a one-year-old, a full-time wife, and a full-time teacher, Kate spends her elusive free-time in the company of mochas, YA literature, and Netflix.
by Jeni Gearhart
“I am not a teacher, but an awakener”—Robert Frost
What a beautiful description of the art of teaching. Teaching is the act of awakening our students to a new way of understanding their world. By sharing texts with our students and by teaching them how to analyze the world around them, we open their eyes to a deeper understanding of life.
Of course, that awakening isn’t easy. Sometimes the act of teaching feels more like shaking someone in a coma. Or, perhaps we are that angry buzzing alarm clock. Either way, the act of being an awakener is both incredibly rewarding and incredibly difficult.
In a college humanities class, I was introduced to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. I’ll give a brief summary for readers whose memory of Plato is a bit rusty. There is a man who has been imprisoned in a cave for his entire life. Behind him is a fire, so he has seen the shadows of objects such as “man” or “horse” on the wall. One day, the man is released from the cave by another man. He is taken outside where he is blinded by the sunlight. When his eyes adjust, he sees real men, real flowers, and real animals. He sees the world as it truly is, as opposed to his former (incomplete) knowledge when he was in the cave.
Do you see some connections to education? Does this make you think of any books or stories? Hopefully it does, because this archetype of awakening, or enlightenment, is everywhere.
A few years ago, I decided to share Plato’s story with my AP Language students when we read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Like most dystopias, Bradbury’s novel is an “awakening story”. Through his awakening, Guy Montag comes to a different (better) understanding of the world and makes the choice to leave the figurative cave of ignorance permanently.
After reading and discussing Fahrenheit 451, my students read a version of Plato’s allegory. I often give them a print text, but I also show them this video that visualizes the story (fair warning, it is badly animated, but it tells the story well). TED-ed also visualizes Plato’s allegory in this video, but it is not as thorough. As we read the text and watch the video, we discuss the following:
After the students feel comfortable with the allegory, we discuss how Plato’s allegory relates to Bradbury’s novel. Montag, too, is unknowingly imprisoned by his ignorance. He is awakened when he reads the banned texts that he is hired to burn. He is then given a “choice”, to return to his ignorance by continuing his work as a fireman, or to become a rebel. Characters such as Faber and Clarisse also help his awakening, functioning as his guides to a new reality.
After discussing these connections, I ask my students to recall other stories that follow this pattern. I often share a clip from The Matrix since this shows a fairly obvious retelling of the allegory. To solidify the connection, I ask them to identify the following in their allegory connections:
All of this generally takes 1.5-2 periods. Then, the fun part. Creative writing.
I do not often give my AP students time to write creatively, but this assignment is worth it:
Plato’s parable, “The Allegory of the Cave”, is a very well-known story in Western Culture. Is the story still transferable to the ideas of today’s society? How would Plato tell “The Allegory of the Cave” today?
Your task is to retell Plato’s story in a different context. Be creative in how you tell this story. You may make any changes that you choose, but you must make sure to include the following elements:
The stories that my students turn in for this assignment are phenomenal. Several have placed the allegory on other planets. Others have told stories of literally imprisoned characters coming to terms with their previous choices. Several have told stories of drug addicts becoming clean, or of people removing themselves from toxic relationships. One student wrote a story about a little girl who was abused as a child and thought it was “normal” until she met another family that showed her what real love was.
Many students told me later that this was one of their favorite assignments of the year, not only because they got to be creative, but also because it opened their eyes to this archetype that is present in so many stories.
Our goal in our classrooms should be to expand our students’ understanding of the world. We should challenge their understanding and help them to grow through the difficult process of authentic learning.
In The Matrix, Morpheus tells Neo, “All I’m offering is the truth, nothing more . . . I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.” As teachers, we do the same. We provide students with truth in the literature that we hand to them. It may be fiction, but it offers truth nonetheless.
We are awakeners.
What stories or experiences “woke you up”? Do you teach stories with this archetype? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Jeni Gearhart teaches 10 Honors English and AP English Language at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. Originally from Western PA, Jeni loves West Virginia and has taught all five years of her teaching career in the Wild and Wonderful state. She a not a hipster, but adamantly proclaims that she liked coloring books before they were cool. When not wandering the internet for new teaching ideas or grading papers, Jeni likes to drink coffee and devour good books.
by MK Jarvis
Every good teacher reflects. We ask ourselves things such as what went right or wrong with a lesson, how could we tweak our classroom management, or could we possibly stop eating the donuts the 6th grade team insists on bringing in every Wednesday. I’ve just completed my second year of teaching, and this summer I’ve been thinking a lot about how I survived the last two years. A great administration and wonderful co-workers (with or without donuts) are definitely at the top of the list, but there have been a few master educators who have given me great advice.
My first year of teaching was phenomenal. I’m not bragging. I’m was as surprised as anyone that I made it through in one piece, believe me. I heard from so many other teachers how their first year was their worst year. They told horror stories from the trenches: crummy, unsupportive administrations, back-stabbing co-workers, and misbehaving students and all their shenanigans. At times during the year, I was embarrassed that all those things weren’t happening to me. I had landed in a middle school with a stellar admin, helpful, friendly co-workers, and misbehaving students and all their shenanigans. Hey, two out of three, right?
So how did I survive among those rotten little middle schoolers? I owe my survival largely to my principals and my team. They made life so much easier. They paid attention to me and any problems I had and supported me when things seemed to be going awry. However, I know there was something more to my survival.
When I was thinking through what I might want to write for this post, I kept coming back to the reasons I had had such a great first year. Certainly, the staff at my middle school were heroes, but what else had made it so? What experience had I brought to the table that made my maiden voyage into teaching so much different than other new teachers? I’m sure it was the master educators I met in the beginning of my journey. The wise words they imparted, whether it was off the cuff or in response to a crisis I was having, have stayed with me. On many days and in many situations, I have found myself remembering them or repeating them to others.
I read somewhere when I first started taking classes for my certification that teachers were the most generous people. They were willing and happy to share experience and wisdom they had collected along the way. I found this to be so when I met my first master teacher.
Mrs. Gillian (rhymes with chillin’ or villain depending on how you behaved in her class) had 30 plus years of public school teaching to her credit and was currently teaching struggling writers at a local university where I was working as a writing tutor. When I decided to finally take the plunge into teaching, she appeared like a guiding angel with all the advice a burgeoning teacher could want or need. I had thousands of questions and “what if” scenarios for her to address. She never seem to tire of my inquiries and often stayed awhile after her classes to help me with assignments and projects. One of the things I was most nervous about was actually being in front of a room full of students. I’m not a bashful person, but thinking of all eyes on me really freaked me out. Would I buckle under the pressure? How would they react to me as a teacher and a person? Would they be compliant? Would they boo me off the stage, throw spit wads at me, or ignore me completely? Her advice was simple: “Walk in like you own the place.” She was simply telling me to put my shoulders back and my chin up, but the words she used were so much more commanding. She told me I should act like I know what I’m doing, and if I’m convincing enough, the students will believe it and buy into it.
A few days before school started, “walk in like you own the place” became my mantra. I practiced how I would walk into the room, what I would say, and how I would say it. The first few weeks were difficult, but that technique helped immensely. My knees didn’t buckle. I kept my shoulders back and my chin up. I could have been nominated for an Oscar. At the end of the year, one of the students asked me how long I had been teaching. When I told her just a little over a year, she didn’t believe me. Perhaps my next career will be acting.
Similar to the famous athletic shoe slogan, “just teach it” means what it says. Take the bull by the horns, get on with it, jump in with both feet. I had to throw out timidity and pull up my big girl pants and teach. Again, I was lucky enough to meet up with a veteran teacher with years and years of experience. Mrs. Williams took me on as a student teacher, and while we sat in her immaculately clean portable classroom with rugs on the floor, curtains on the windows, and encouraging quotes stenciled around the top of the room discussing what I would be teaching during the next six weeks, I hinted at lesson plans she might have in mind. She took mercy on me and offered her plans for the week ahead and the materials that went with them. While I looked it over and asked question after question, she simply stated, “Just teach it. Get up there and teach it.” So I did. I swear I can still hear my steps to the front of that portable echoing off those clean, white-panelled walls. The kids were staring, waiting for me to speak. Mrs. Williams watching, but trying to look busy and unconcerned. The first part of the lesson was a rubric, so I handed it out and started going over it. Something happened. Something beautiful. I knew I was in the right place at the right time doing what I had always wanted to do. Magic. I folded the rubric in two and advised the students to only concern themselves with the 3s and 4s on the rubric because who would ever want anything less than an excellent mark. The students folded their rubric and relaxed a little, Mrs. Williams did concern herself with other things, and I just taught the lesson unafraid and with joy.
Mrs. Dow, master teacher and butterfly enthusiast, had a penchant for snazzy sneakers and velour track suits, had flawless classroom management and graded papers faster than any teacher I had ever observed before or since. I often think of her paper grading prowess when I am slogging through stack after stack of essays exhibiting deplorable writing skills and sloppy handwriting. How did she do it? At first glance her room seemed a bit messy and disorganized, but I quickly found out it was only an illusion. She was über organized and knew exactly where everything lived and belonged. Mrs. Dow had been my son’s ninth grade English teacher and the assignments he had been given in her class were both challenging and engaging. My son complained about how difficult the work was, so I knew she had to be an excellent teacher. I wanted to meet her. I wanted to student teach with her, so I went to the school and asked her if she would consider having a student teacher lurking around. She agreed.
By the end of the first day, I was mesmerized. Everything in her class ran smoothly. Students complied with requests, completed assignments and turned them in, students listened to instructions and went to work. What magical spells had she cast upon these children?
A couple of weeks into my stint with Mrs. Dow, I had given back papers that I had graded. A student approached me after class and said she hadn’t received her paper back, but she was sure she had turned it in. I assured her I’d have a look on my desk to see if her paper had accidentally been shuffled into another stack. At planning, I looked everywhere for the paper and did not find it. I asked Mrs. Dow what she did when she lost a paper. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: I think I lost so-n-so’s paper. It wasn’t in my stack when I returned the graded papers last period. What do you do when you lose a paper?
Mrs. Dow: (brows raised, chuckling) Don’t ever let them smell blood in the water.
Me: (growing fearful, beginning to sweat) What do you mean?
Mrs. Dow went on to admonish me about what I should and should not ever say to a student and one of those things is “I lost your paper.” She told me that most of the time the paper is still in the student’s binder and they would eventually find it. Did the student find her paper? Yes, she did. Have I found in the short time I’ve been teaching that more times than not the paper is in the binder or the locker or the backpack or perishing in the no name basket? Yes, I have.
On the surface, this advice seems to tell me I have to protect or defend myself against student treachery. In a way, it is, but more than that, it tells me I have to stay organized. I have to be careful with the trust the students have in me and do my darndest to do right by them. The advice tells me to stay on my toes and do what is required of me to the best of my ability.
These tidbits of advice are a little zany, I admit, but I’ve applied it all and it’s worked for me. I plan to always remember the words of the masters.
WVCTE is wondering do you have words of wisdom, no matter how crazy, that have carried you through the school year? Encourage us by leaving us a comment, Tweeting us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connecting with us on Facebook!
This morning, I rolled out of bed around 8 o’clock. My seven year old was already deeply immersed in her craft project and my five year old slumbered on, mouth agape and arms thrown gloriously overhead, like a bizarro world roller coaster snapshot.
The house was still. I headed for the coffeepot, searched for a mug to match my mood, trading in my favorite Vonnegut for a sunshine yellow, and poured an easy cup. I sat down and read a book for a while and then thumbed through a book of Natasha Trethewey poems as the morning sun poured in. I washed a few dishes and tidied up a bit. I mixed up some waffle batter and relished in the sizzle of batter dropping onto the hot iron. I buttered and syrup-ed fresh waffles for my kids and got sticky snuggles after breakfast.
I love these human moments of summer break. I love seeing pictures of my teacher-friends planting their gardens, building benches, vacationing with their families, joyously reading away the day with their bare feet soaking up the sun. I see my colleagues committing time to self-care, and it’s inspiring.
It gets me thinking -- why do these moments seem to be reserved only for summer break?
My catch-phrase of the 2016-17 school year became, “I know I’m doing too much, but so far I’ve kept it all going.” I guess acceptance is the first step, but I realized that if I was seeing life as “keeping it all going” I should probably re-evaluate. The good news is, I have because...
This year, I choreographed two show choirs, was a club advisor, taught Sunday school, blogged regularly, helped build my school’s STEAM Academy, taught two packed sections of an AP course, and rocked out as a mom to my seven-year-old and five-year-old. I made time to hang out with my husband, family, and every now and then, friends. This is not braggery or martyrdom -- this was my inability to say no. And you know what? I’m exhausted.
Notice I didn’t mention any self-care in that last paragraph? No yoga, no reading, no cooking or crafts.
Remember #OneWord2017? Mine was FOCUS. I knew that in 2017 I wanted to focus on what was essential. That drive led me to the book Essentialism. As my friend and fellow teacher Liz Matheny says of the book, “It’s a game changer.” The philosophy of Essentialism according to Greg McKeown is simple: the disciplined pursuit of less, to do the right things with your time, and to take control of what and how much you do.
And McKeown challenges, “What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?”
My enduring understanding from Essentialism is, if some thing -- some project, task, relationship, or commitment, isn’t a definite yes, then it’s a definite no. This logic brought such clarity to my life, both personally and professionally.
But what I’m learning is something we already know: being an essentialist teacher is difficult. The profession demands much more than what is essential, and many teachers, myself included, have a deeply rooted desire to contribute their time and talents to more than one worthy project. Being an essentialist teacher is difficult, but not impossible.
How do we pare back to the most essential? What are the right things to do with our time as educators? What is your definite yes?
For me, it is essential that students in my classroom are safe and loved, that they share in a community of learning that is positive and prosocial. It is essential that I know them and they know me, that I am vulnerable with them so we can develop honest and necessary connections that allow us to explore the meaning of literature, and oftentimes life, which occurs when great literature and our life’s experiences intersect.
Well-designed lessons and intentional teaching are also essential. A student’s discovery of meaning in literature and their exploration of their own authentic voice in writing is essential. Their ability to ask questions, to examine a writer’s craft, to notice subtleties in literature that make meaning, to play and experiment with language and to feel safe and supported doing so is essential. Inviting students to innovate and problem solve and consider their role and ownership in their own community and state -- all this is essential.
For me, being an essentialist teacher is to remember and recommit to the one job I’m there to do -- to teach and inspire students.
And of course there’s more. I have more professional “Yes”es -- writing and reflection and professional connections and learning.
And I wonder, on this beautiful summer day and lazy morning, if we commit to professional essentialism, will it relieve us from just “keeping it all going”? Will identifying the right things we do with our time professionally allow us more human moments not only during summer break, but all the time?
My friend Jay from Moving Writers says, “Teaching is a human endeavor." It is essential that we remember this, too.
WVCTE is wondering, how do you balance work and life? What is essential in your classroom?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
I'd love to hear from you! -- Karla