Monday, July 18, 2011

One big nerdy summer

Since I'm a teacher, I often get asked what I do on my "summers off," as if I spend my entire summer sitting under a tree sipping drinks with little umbrellas in them. While I do spend some time sitting under a tree, mostly I'm playing with my dog or reading a book. I also take time to reflect on the previous year (a blog on that to come), plan for the upcoming year, and do some independent research (and/or attend a conference or two). So far this summer I've done much of that, but I've also found time for some pure recreation. Much of it has been spent in the kitchen, and I've documented a good bit of it on my food blog; and this summer I started my own book blog as well and have been updating that fairly regularly.

Speaking of books, I was vaguely horrified recently to discover that there were quite a few locally owned, independent bookstores in the Denver/Boulder area I had yet to visit. Without waiting long, I began to rectify that, and have taken it one step further.

Not long ago I took a "Nerd's Field Trip" to three bookstores within a short distance of one another on Broadway Avenue in Denver: Fahrenheit's Books, the Broadway Book Mall, and the Denver Book Fair. I found all three stores good places to visit, and I plan to return again soon.

Which brings me to my next adventure: Book Nerds' Big Day Out. Basically, it goes something like this: this Wednesday some friends of mine and I are going to get together and explore as many bookstores as we can in one day. Here's a rough idea of what it will look like for us:

Okay, so here's what I am planning for my Book Nerd's Big Day Out in Denver:
  • 9:00 a.m.- Breakfast at Snooze. (A locally owned, independent restaurant)
  • 10:00 - Head out to the bookstores. I have found 13 bookstores in the Denver area (I counted Tattered Cover twice); some are within walking distance of each other. I might not go to all of them, mostly because of not wanting to pay for parking. :-p Each of the stores is locally owned and independent: a major theme of mine and certainly a huge part of the day.
  • Lunch wherever, whenever (Try to make the goal to eat at a locally owned, independent place, though...bonus points for trying some place new!) :)
  • 4:00 - Tea at the House of Commons on 15th St. (*NOTE: If it proves that there are too many, we'll likely change the 4:00 location to either St. Mark's on 17th or Hooked on Colfax.)

Rules of the day:
  • Any and all bookstores must be locally and independently owned. No chains, period.
  • As much as possible, buy at least one book at each store (many used bookstores have a $1 clearance section)
  • Buy at least one book to trade with someone else.

I'll be posting pictures and comments soon, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I would encourage others to put together their own Book Nerds' Big Day Out in their city and post up links to their fun here!

For those that might be interested, here is a list/map of the stores we plan to visit:

View Map for Book Nerds' Big Day Out 2011 in a larger map

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Summertime photography

There are many things I enjoy about summer: finding the time for reflection (a blog reflecting on my past school year is forthcoming), getting caught up on sleep and housecleaning (still working on the latter), and of course, reading (often with accompanying book reviews). I recently had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Andy Karr and Michael Wood's The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes (my review is posted here on Elephant Journal). Included with most of the chapters are exercises, "assignments," in which one gets to implement and practice the principles taught in the book. I took the time to complete many of the assignments, and was rather pleased with many of the results. I put them together in a slide show below...enjoy!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Review: The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor

Originally published in 2006, The Looking Glass Wars details what really happened in Wonderland, purporting that Lewis Carroll's version of events was as false as Carroll's name. (His real name was Charles Dodgson.)

The book opens on the seventh birthday of Alyss Heart, daughter of the queen and king of Wonderland. After the murder of her parents, by her aunt Redd, Alyss escapes to Earth but is separated from the royal bodyguard, Hatter Madigan. Alyss is eventually adopted by the Liddell family and grows to adulthood, eventually becoming convinced that her life in Wonderland was all a dream, causing her to lose the power of her own imagination. Madigan spends thirteen years scouring the world for Alyss, and it is only when he comes across a copy of Alice in Wonderland on a bookshelf that he is able to track her down in order to return her to Wonderland so she can reclaim the throne.

Blending historical fact with literary homage, Beddor creates a fast-paced story in a world where imagination is everything, and the ability to believe can make the difference quite literally between life or death.

The Looking Glass Wars is the first book in a trilogy of the same name. However, what makes this particular world and story unique is that Beddor has expanded both the world and the story into a variety of realms. There is a Hatter M graphic novel series that details Hatter Madigan's adventures in our world while he searches for Alyss, and the website features games related to the books, art, and more, including a cd of music inspired by the books and a link to the Facebook page which features an exclusive web comic. Through these varied media, Beddor has taken storytelling to a new and interesting level.

From Dial Books (a division of Penguin Books) and available from your local, independent bookseller. (Shop local and shop makes a difference!)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Mind Mapping Mark Twain

I recently had my first experience with Mind Mapping in my classroom; my son mentioned that he was doing it in his IB English class, so after looking into it, I decided to give it a try to see how my students did with it and whether or not they found it useful.

As a whole, the students and I were both pleased with the results. Various sources indicated that mind mapping is extremely effective with visual/spatial learners, a learning style that many of my students have as a strength, which is one of the reasons I opted to try it out in my classroom. After explaining the process to them and modeling my own, I turned them loose to try it out. As the lesson proceeded, I found myself re-creating my mind map since the one I had created as my exemplar was done with Free Mind.

Some thoughts on the tech version of mind mapping: as mentioned, my first example was created using the Free Mind software program, which I found semi-intuitive, yet rather limiting in many ways; I also tried using the Mind 42 website, but again, found it to be too limiting. There were a few links I wanted to make between "pods" on my map, but neither Free Mind nor Mind 42 would allow me to do so. I did like having the option of pasting in actual pictures and links, but since I had planned on having my students create their mind maps using markers/colored pencils and paper (the "bells and whistles" of the software programs would have proven too distracting for them first time out), the shortcomings of the tech version became readily apparent.

I'm also glad I opted out of the tech version simply because it did prove to be fairly distracting trying to figure out how it worked and what it all did while trying to finish my project. I knew if it was that bad for me, it'd be a lot tougher for my students to stay focused on the task at hand, so the high tech version was abandoned before the lesson was implemented.

Step two of the process involved turning the mind map into a more traditional, linear "outline" of sorts simply because it helped my brain move from a more amorphous thinking environment to one that I could recognize as being able to fit into a more recognizable, linearly formatted way of thought that would find itself transferred into an essay.

After that it was easy to move the students into the rough drafts of their essays. Based on the feedback I received from the students, this strategy was a huge success for them. I'm glad I implemented it, and I know I'll be using it again.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fun with the classics and a few zombies

Today I hit upon an idea for my last unit of the year for my 6th and 7th grade honors English language arts class. I couldn't figure out which novels to choose for my final literature unit, then remembered a book review for Alice in Zombieland, due out in bookstores next month. Thought followed thought, and I came up with a unit I'm calling "Classics and Monsters" (yeah, I know...weak title; give me a break, I'm working on a better one).

At any rate, the idea behind it is to have the students break into literature circles/book groups, then choose from a selected list of classic novels: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Alice in Wonderland, Little Women, Anna Karenina. After the students finish reading their selected novel, they'll  read the modern, monster mash-up version of the same story: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Alice in Zombieland, Little Vampire Women (or Little Women and Werewolves), Android Karenina.

After reading the monster mash-up, the students will get to pick one of the various short stories we read at the beginning of the year to re-write, monster mash-up style. I pitched the idea to some of my students, who seized on the idea and are excited about it. Vonnegut, Doyle, Bierce, Hemingway, and a few others could be in big trouble. This is going to be fun.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Digital Divide of Usage Instead of Access

About two weeks ago, I was working with my English language arts class on a literary analysis essay they were peer editing. One student's partner had to leave class early, so I encouraged the two of them to work together at home electronically via email or some other program; one of the students replied, "Yeah, no problem, we can just do it over Skype."

Right about that same time, this article appeared in the Denver Post in which it reported on the use of the internet by minority populations. Even though the article focused on race, I suspect there is a certain amount of socioeconomics that factors in as well, particularly since it refers to the use of smartphones and the like to access the internet which are much less expensive than a computer, particularly if given the choice between a phone with internet access included or a computer with internet access as a financial add-on. While a smartphone can get you online, you can still do more online with an actual computer, and that seemingly small difference is actually pretty huge.

I think part of the issue is also simply training and awareness of the potential represented by an online presence. The potentialities for the relay of information became incredibly apparent during the recent State of the Union speech by President Obama. As has been the case for many years now, there was a simple television broadcast carried by the various networks. However, for anyone with an online presence and who was interested, the experience became completely and totally different. The White House had a live streaming feed alongside of which was space alloted for graphs, images and so forth (The tag line: "Watch and Engage.") After the speech, various members of the White House staff took questions via Twitter and Facebook.

The Sunlight Foundation not only had a live stream of the speech via C-Span, but also had a live blog going on via Cover It Live with various journalists and others posting comments; questions; links to sites, files, and videos as a means to "fact check" the speech even as it was occurring as well as a live Twitter feed and posting of graphs and the like on the page as well. Anyone without internet access or who was busy watching cute kittens on YouTube was out of the conversation and denied the access to the information that was being shared. Now more than ever, it holds true that those without an online presence are simply not a part of the conversation.

It is not enough to teach our students how to use Power Point or how to use a word processing program. It is not enough to tell them about Facebook or Twitter. We must teach them how to use these (and other) tools to their advantage; we must show them the potentialities of the web beyond entertainment. We must close the new digital divide.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The tender heart of teaching

Well, it has been far too long since I've updated this for sure. I've certainly not been slacking; if anything, I've been learning more this year than I have in a long time. After 22 years of secondary level teaching (20 at the high school level, 2 at the middle school level) teaching (primarily) third and fourth grade is almost a complete career change. While I do have a sixth and seventh grade English language arts class (which I absolutely enjoy), I spend most of my day working with much younger students.

The biggest difference is in the day to day interaction with my students  (at both levels). One of the aspects I've developed over the years of working with high school students is a somewhat protective "shell" over my inner self, as have the students. Sincere glimpses into my inner life or that of my students at the high school level were rare; I mostly developed a rather facetious attitude in many ways, finding that a dose of flippancy was sufficient for many situations around that more vulnerable Self.

Not so with younger students. Elementary and most of my middle school students are much more open, much more honest, than my high school students were, and I am unable to fall back on my previous behaviors. I find myself opening myself up a bit more than I have in the past. An "I love having you as a teacher" at the high school level could be met with a "Yeah, yeah...thanks, but you still have to do your homework" or some other such remark (accompanied by a smile); the student would get the point that I appreciated the comment but I was still left somewhat "protected" as it were. With younger students, I find that a smile and thanks is far more appropriate; younger students tend to not pick up on some of the cues that older students are able to read.

I read The Book Thief with my middle school students recently. The end of the book is rather emotionally intense, and I have yet to make it through without some sort of visceral reaction. In previous readings with classes, I assign that section as homework then hold a completely academic discussion about the end, with a passing comment of "yeah, I cried" and leaving it at that. This year was different. The class opted to read the end together, and for the first time, students actually saw me experiencing a response to literature that extended beyond the typical pedantic English teacher response. It took some doing for me to do that as well as discussions with several of my colleagues, some of whom didn't understand my struggle...until placed into context of "oh're used to working with high school students."

This year is the year I've exposed my tender heart of teaching. It's been one of the most intense and scary years I've had since I began teaching, and in many, many ways, one of the most rewarding. And yet I can't help but wonder in retrospect if perhaps my students at the high school level would have been better served by my allowing myself to be a bit more vulnerable. As teachers, especially at the high school level, we spend a great deal of time discussing compassion, empathy, and connecting with literature and literary characters while failing to extrapolate those skills into relationships with human beings. We assume that the students will do that  on their own by default yet fail to realize that unless students are encouraged and even shown by example, they are unlikely to move in that direction. And so for many students, literature remains dead; nice stories, some better than others, but for many, what they read is likely forgotten shortly after they have finished reading it precisely because they have failed to bring it into their lives. I do it, we think, so of course they do, right? Not necessarily. Not unless we are able to risk bringing what we are teaching alive for them. As teachers, it behooves us to allow ourselves to be openly touched by literature and to allow others to see it touch us.

As I read the end of The Book Thief with my students, I could feel the eyes of virtually every student in the room on me, especially the boys, watching my reactions and my struggles with the more intense sections. For those keeping track, engagement was at an extreme high, and not just because of the story itself, but because I was allowing myself to be exposed, I was letting students see that literature can cause a reaction, and perhaps that it should. We later discussed my reactions; some students said they didn't feel anywhere the same level that I did; we discussed why and how readers connect with characters, we discussed the tools authors use to develop those relationships with readers. We discussed literature as a warm, living, art form rather than as a cold, dead thing on a metallic laboratory table ready for dissection. No mere lifeless frog, literature for us breathed and bled; it beckoned us in and came alive. It was one of the more rewarding discussions I've had in my years of teaching.

And so now I begin the second half of my first year as a 23 year veteran first year teacher. I am looking forward to the continued growth; I am looking forward to returning to the roots and essence of being a teacher.