A Change Would Do You Good

One of my favorite features of Facebook is the Memories tab. I keep a journal, but rather sporadically, so for reminders about what was happening in my life in the past, Facebook is a more consistent reminder of the day to day. There are certainly challenges with this, perhaps the chief being, the difficulty of accessing that information in an easy way. That said, I find it fascinating to have an easy way to look back every morning to see what I was doing/thinking on that day from one to ten years ago.

In April, the above Facebook Memory popped up. What was especially ironic (in an Alanis Morissette sort of way) was that I had agreed, just days earlier, to teach 8th grade English next year. I was initially hesitant about the change because I’ll be returning to school in October after a couple months of parental leave, and it didn’t seem the ideal time to pick up a new prep, much less a new subject. But it was a move that I think will have long-term benefits for the school because it will give us a teacher at each grade level in the middle school who will be teaching both History and English, hopefully facilitating increased communication and collaboration between the departments. I also think ultimately it will be a good move for me, if perhaps a bit of a bumpy start. I’ve taught 7th grade and 8th grade History for the past five years, and, as Sheryl Crow says, sometimes a change would do you good.


In response to a recent post, a former colleague wrote the following. Rather than just respond via email, I thought I’d post his thoughts (with his permission) and my response here.

One line especially piqued my interest —

I’m not ready to argue for the elimination of discipline-specific teaching, but I do think that the “real world” doesn’t divide neatly down discipline-specific lines.

… I wonder what you see as the advantages to discipline-specific teaching… In my experience, whenever I tried bringing math into history class, I got the oddest reaction, as if students were saying “I don’t use that part of my brain in history class — what are you doing? No fair!”

It seems to me that — sticking with middle school here for a moment — if we are saying all students need to know math and science and English and history and a world language and arts and PE to graduate middle school, shouldn’t we require that all adults in the building (who have all presumably graduated middle school) be able to do the things that we require of all 8th graders?

This seems like an important question I need to think about — and I’m wondering why you see value in having the “social studies” teacher label, rather than the English teacher label. And when you teach about the environment, for example, aren’t you becoming a “science” teacher?

I get that your graduate work prepares you for teaching humanities more than it does for math/science, but if pressed, I’m betting you could learn about and teach any math or science lesson in middle school (in high school, I tend to agree with you — there’s more value in discipline specific knowledge).

I think that there is a difference between being able to do things and loving them. The value for me doesn’t come in the label of being a social studies teacher, but in loving and feeling confident in what I teach. Feeling confident doesn’t mean imagining myself the expert by any means, but it does mean having a framework of knowledge for a given topic above the level at which I teach.

I love teaching, period. But having had the experience of teaching third grade (math, language arts, social studies), fifth grade US History, sixth grade history and language arts, seventh grade World History, and eighth and eleventh grade US history, I believe that I am a more engaged, happy, challenging teacher when I love both the content and teaching. I could teach a lesson with heavy math or science content, but I’m less interested in that way of thinking about the world.

This all comes with the very strong caveat that I don’t believe that teachers should close their doors and should instead actively seek out opportunities to collaborate with their colleagues. Better to see teachers teaching what they love and working together.

I would push you to articulate why you think discipline-specific knowledge is more valuable at the upper school level. That seems to short-change middle school students. I would suggest that even at the lower school level students benefit from teachers who have the time and interest to be, not just competent, but scholars of what they teach. If anything, upper school strikes me as the very place for inquiry-based and interdisciplinary learning.

Creating Cross-Curricular Experiences

Tonight I’m hosting a twitter #engchat on creating cross-curricular experiences in the English classroom. As someone who has had difficulty declaring loyalty to a single subject for most of my academic career and as someone who teaches both English and history, I’m deeply interested in creating experiences for students to learn outside of discipline-specific boxes.

Some questions to jump start the discussion:

  • What benefits do you see to creating cross-curricular experiences? How do they enhance student learning?
  • What are obstacles and logistical challenges to creating cross-curricular experiences? How have you successfully navigated these challenges?
  • What tools have you used to facilitate cross-curricular experiences?

Feel free to join us on Twitter or to post your thoughts as a comment below. I’d also love if people would be willing to share links to projects and experiences they have successfully implemented.

Great TED Talks for English Teachers

TED Talks are videos of thought-provoking, yet brief presentations given at the Technology, Entertainment, and Design conference. TED has also licensed independently organized events (TEDx) across the world. I got to attend TEDxNYED in NYC last March. It was an incredible event. The effect of so many incredible speakers in rapid-fire succession was brain overload (in a good way).

I’ve pulled some TED talks I think might provoke some good discussion in the English classroom. Christian Long asked his students to create their own TED-style talks as a part of his English class. It’s a great way to incorporate research and presentation skills.

Danger of A Single Story

Incredibly powerful presentation from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about danger of relying on just one perspective. I’ve written about this talk in an earlier post.

The Politics of Fiction

Elif Shafak on the way fiction can be used to transcend identity politics

Collecting Stories

Jonathan Harris talks about collecting stories from the internet and life.

The Thrilling Potential of Sixth Sense Technology

This talk isn’t directly related to English but would make a great companion to a dystopian or science fiction unit. I watched with my sixth graders and then we talked about how such a device might affect the future of education. Pranav Mistry developed the device in less than six months.

These are just a few of the hundreds of TED talks. If you’ve got others to recommend, please add them in the comments.

EDIT: I was reminded of several other TED talks when I cross-posted this on the English Companion Ning.

Metaphorically Speaking

James Geary illustrates the power of metaphor in our lives. This is also a great video for seeing Prezi in action.

Redefining the Dictionary

Erin discusses the changing nature of dictionaries

The Beauty of Data Visualization

I love The Visual Miscellaneum! This TED talk by its author author David McCandless gives students a chance to consider how we represent information.