#Strange Truth Beauty Keats March Madness or (“How an English Teacher Can Work John Keats into a Postgame Analysis of the NCAA Basketball Tournament)

Truth is stranger than fiction. Translation: fiction can be ignored when it’s implausible and truth cannot. Just ask English poet John Keats about truth.

Nowhere is truth more beautiful than during the NCAA College Basketball tournament. The great truth about March Madness is that one has to believe the scoreboard and not the seeds. Pregame seeds are fiction; final scores are truth. Or, as Keats said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

Before anyone dismisses the connection of Keats to NCAA college basketball as implausible and something only an English teacher would contrive, consider that it was English teacher John Wooden, head coach at UCLA, whose Bruins won ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period, including an unprecedented seven in a row. One cannot ignore those credentials. Shall we move on?

In Round 1, when UAB (#14) beat Iowa State (#3) and UCLA (#11) beat SMU (#6), the truth of the final scores was stranger than the fiction of the pregame seedings. That both games were decided by a single point is even stranger. That both games had the exact same score of 60-59? Truth at its strangest. That both teams would meet in Round 2? Beauty. No fiction writer could ever have gotten away with that.

Think about it: when fiction is contrived, the reader feels cheated and discredits the author as a poor writer who concocted an implausible story. “That could never happen,” complains the reader.

Even though fiction writers have the discretion of using situational irony (e.g., Romeo and Juliet end their families’ hatred with their love), some actual events would crumble in the world of fiction, such as this scenario from Round 1: two fathers (Steve Alford/UCLA and Ron Hunter/Georgia State) coached two sons (Bryce Alford and R.J. Hunter), both of whom got the game-winning shot, both games being huge upsets (UCLA #11 beating SMU #6 / Georgia State #14 beating Baylor #3), both games being decided by a single point. An editor would wreak havoc with those coincidences. Keats, however, called the shot: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

Here are some other incontrovertible numbers that made for good (non)fiction. Like the shot clock which counts down, here are five facts in descending order from Round 1:

  • five: # of games won by one point (a new record) ; # of upsets;
  • four: First Four team Dayton advanced to Round 2;
  • three: # of busted brackets after Round 1;
  • two: # of games with the same final score in Round 1;
  • one: all this madness in just one round

Repeat: Truth ranks great fiction because fiction can be ignored when it appears implausible. One cannot simply ignore the truth as implausible. Even if one does ignore it, the truth does not obligingly go away. The uncomfortable part is that there’s no author to complain to when it comes to the truth. It’s maddening.

Did someone say “mad”? In March, all madness leads to the NCAA college basketball tournament. Keats wasn’t a sports writer, but he might as well have been. All the post game analyses of how and why a fourteenth seed can beat a third seed and an eleventh seed can beat a sixth seed are neatly packaged in Keats’s last two lines in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

A sports writer short on copy to meet a deadline could simply quote Keats. In laymen’s terms, it is what it is, and it’s a beautiful thing. End of story.

To those who cling to the fiction of seeds: on some cosmic level, the second round game between UCLA and UAB echoed the original seeding. How? The margin between the teams was the same as the brackets intended. According to the brackets, in the first round, if the third and sixth seeded teams beat the eleventh and fourteenth seeded teams respectively, then the second round game would be a third team playing a sixth team–two teams separated in the seedings by three. In truth, the two Cinderella teams UCLA (11) and UAB (14) were separated by the same predicted margin of three. Instead of #3 vs. #6, it was #11 vs. #14. The ratio of three remained in tact. A sort of parallel universe. Kind of like when two odd numbers add up to an even one. The two upsets were odd, but the margin remained an even keel at three. Strange but true. Or rather, strange and true.

Repeat: Strange. Truth. Beauty. Keats. March. Madness.

~Mary O’Connor


Whatever You do, don’t Move into the District

“Whatever you do, don’t move into the district.” After graduation, a professor bestowed that advice unto me, not referring to my future district in particular. Instead, his recommendation was aimed at ensuring my personal and professional lives remained separate. What he couldn’t have told me was, as a teacher, the distinction is nearly impossible.

Heeding his advice I quickly drew a map of prospective towns to live in—all bordering the large EHS district. What I failed to realize was no geographic distance or astute apartment placement could distinguish between teacher-me and outside-school-me. In five years, between college and graduate school, I have moved to five different towns. Living in an apartment naturally feels temporary, yet when I moved here that changed. I find myself waving to my freshmen as they bag groceries at Market Basket, chatting with them as they serve me at my favorite restaurants, and standing in line behind them as they too go to the movies on Friday nights.

In turn, I too felt the devastation when EHS suffered the loss of Officer Stephen Arkell, an EHS coach and the father of two current EHS students. Officer Arkell was killed in the line of duty in Brentwood, a town within our district. EHS is not a stranger to tragedy, yet within my two years here, it has been the second time I have seen this school and community join together to support one another. While I did not know Officer Arkell, I have felt his loss through the parents, teachers, and students of this community. Returning to normalcy when nothing feels normal is difficult, especially for teenagers, many of whom are witnessing death and tragedy for the first time. My heart bleeds for his daughters, the eldest of which I knew, as well as my colleagues and the countless students I have and had who are pained over the loss of Officer Arkell. I drive through Brentwood everyday on my way to and from work; I see the signs thanking Officer Arkell for his service, and I am reminded of how many of my students must have watched the black plume of smoke from the fire at the crime scene hang over their town. I see the empty seats in my classroom of those students who knew Officer Arkell as a family friend or coach.

As I stood at the candlelight vigil last week, I recognized faces of students, parents, and colleagues. The reality is that district lines don’t define communities. When I became a teacher, I joined more than a school. I proudly became part of a population that has the strength to face tragedy with exceptional support and compassion. I followed my professor’s advice: I didn’t move into the district. But he failed to warn me that the district would find a place to settle down within me.










In Defense of… Fiction?

I am a middle-aged English teacher, and I read more nonfiction than fiction.

I didn’t think I would succumb to this affliction. I used to read stories exclusively, sagas of other realms and times I could never inhabit. I immersed in the beings of characters, and just as Holden Caufield so famously fantasizes, I wanted to call up F. Scott Fitzgerald and hang out. I tried to have lunch with Russell Banks, writing him from my college dorm room when he still lived in Concord, but Affliction was being made into a movie so he likely had better offers.

Twenty years later, I have begun administering self-treatment. I let my New Yorker subscription run out because I would read John Seabrook’s 10,000 word feature, “Crunch: Building a Better Apple” (don’t judge me, it’s fascinating) but skip the short story in the back. So I signed up for Glimmer Train and The Paris Review instead, and gorged on short stories and poetry, and it worked for a while, but the last four books I’ve read? The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Cold Blood, Devil in the White City, and Wired for War. Making matters worse, I no longer teach literature survey courses as in my first decade of teaching. I squeeze in a handful of novels in some composition classes, and the occasional elective offers fresh titles, but I am primarily a pusher of nonfiction these days and I’m finding it an easy sell. Much of our reading for composition, while dense, is short, current, and renowned, and once the students learn to unpack an essay’s meaning and craft, they clearly feel empowered. The content is more than real for my students, it is urgent; a wailing rally cry around the issues in education, or war, gender, race… Admittedly, I enjoy facilitating their introduction to nonfiction, but am I prematurely rushing them into middle age? Should I teach novels in what is supposed to be a course in rhetoric and nonfiction?

I understand the common reasons readers, say 40 and beyond, often migrate to nonfiction; we increasingly read onscreen, we read to inform our occupation, our economic standing, or our political affiliation. While women have carved out spaces for book clubs featuring novels, men have not matched their efforts. Calling all men in our department: Can we have a novel club? I hear some monthly organizations can cure you of poor habits. For our ground-breaking, ice-breaking novel, I want to laugh aloud, no chuckle or smirk will do, or that chiefly adult laugh whereby a rush of air passes through our teeth in ironic reproach, but the kind of hoot during which I might pee a little bit.

I think some good can come from this struggle. If anything, I am starting to realize the idiom, all writing is argument, can have practical applications to my teaching. As nonfiction can display remarkable attention to figurative implications and boundless imagination, fiction can serve as an informative and critical text. I am not speaking of the ancillary resources we attach to our fiction units: interviews, reviews, critical analysis in a foreword or author’s note, all of which are effective and enriching. More specifically, I am referring to using the novel itself as an argument. My colleague, Mr. Provost, asks his students to evaluate Nick Carraway’s claims about the protagonist: “Gatsby turned out alright in the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.” While not all novels have this brand of lofty exposition, a grand opening much like a prologue, all of the authors and characters we love in our canon works make bold claims that are either warranted in the body or not:

  • “If you do something too good, then, after a while, if you don’t watch it, you start showing off. And then you’re not as good any more.”                                                                                          -Holden Caufield
  • “Roger’s arm was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins.”                                                                                                            -William Golding
  • “The one thing that doesn’t abide by a majority rule is a person’s conscience.”                                                                                                  -Atticus Finch
  • “There’s special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”                          -Hamlet

Front-loading these claims in teaching a novel could be a way for fiction purists to serve a new master, RTI, while saving at least one former literature teacher from abandoning the stories he once loved. Looking through my own favorites, I am only beginning to learn how we can teach fiction as an informational text or an essay. We can empower students with the language and pose questions: Where do you find Holden Caufield’s reasoning non sequitur? Does he oversimplify? Generalize? Does he resort to attacking a person, not the issue, ad hominem? Our students can synthesize these answers in “extent to which” prompts like those coming from RTI, or any other phrasing allowing them to qualify their stance on claims.

I offer these examples humbly as an alternative approach to teaching a novel if our fiction titles are threatened by standardized testing or by our increasing tendency toward information over imagination as we age. We can assess students in reading dense, informative fiction beyond their bounds. I didn’t finish Animal Farm in Mrs. Corrigan’s 9th Grade English and ponder its allegorical representation of the Russian Revolution as a model for economic reform. I thought, “Those pigs are mean.” And Mrs. Corrigan, bless her heart, let me write about those mean pigs. I wasn’t ready to deconstruct a novel as an argument, but I’ll bet a lot of our 9th graders are ready if we care to try.

In August of 1963, Madeleine L’Engle won the Newbury Medal for A Wrinkle in Time, the first book I ever finished, then immediately started reading again. In her acceptance speech, she laments an establishment attacking the wonder of a child who reads stories. She writes, “These are the forces working in the world as never before in the history of mankind for standardization, for the regimentation of us all, or what I like to call making muffins of us all, muffins all like every other muffin in the muffin tin.” I find her quote reassuring, and terrifying. It tells me this struggle between imagination and information, between choice and standard, is old, that this too shall pass, while paradoxically arguing that perhaps it never passed, that history doesn’t repeat itself because there is no need to look back at struggles all around us now and forever.

I share L’Engle’s quote because my son Jackson and I are currently reading A Wrinkle in Time before bed. So it seems all is not lost for me. I still indulge in a chapter’s worth of tales concerning Percy Jackson, Narnia, or a galaxy far, far away. In L’Engle’s novel, Jackson loves Charles Wallace, the five-year-old sage who dispels terrific one-liners and inexplicable foresight. In one of the opening scenes, Charles knows his mother and older sister will have a fitful night, so he is already downstairs making sandwiches and warming milk. He stirs the milk on the stove and cuts the liverwurst sandwiches with a large butcher’s knife, all the while in footy pajamas. I read in my teacher’s voice at night, Mr. Hale, a voice Jackson finds funny but rarely interrupts. However, at the image of a boy creeping downstairs to utilize fire and a blade in his pajamas, Jackson laughs.

“He’s got to be standing in a chair dad, that he dragged around the kitchen, still holding his knife. Can’t you just seem him?”

And mercifully, I can. I can see him still.

~Ryan Hale

Literary Terms at Play on the Basketball Court

It’ll be raining cats and dogs in Texas, come Monday.

Kentucky’s Wildcats beat the Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday, and not surprisingly:  badgers and wolverines are part of the same family (Mustelidea) and the Wildcats had already shown last week how they can handle Wolverines.

The UConn Huskies pushed back the Gator attack.

In the end, the NCAA Championship game will be Cats vs. Huskies.  A classic archetypical conflict.

Did someone say “archetypical”?  Call an English teacher.

The NCAA basketball tournament parallels great literature/ nonfiction by dramatizing literary elements:  conflict, complication, character, suspense, foreshadowing, irony, resolution, point of view—technical foul vs. flagrant foul? An English teacher can use game plans as lesson plans during March Madness.

Basketball covers all the conflicts:

–           man vs. self (Need to play my best game in a single-elimination tournament)

–           man vs. Nature (Gotta push harder and play through any injuries)

–           man vs. Society (Half the people in this arena are rooting against me)

–           man vs. Unknown/Fate (Who’s gonna foul out? Who’s gonna win?)

–           man vs. Man is a defensive strategy in basketball

The players are all sympathetic characters with great backstories, complete with the Mom Angle.  According to the TBS announcers, six years ago in 2008 Kentucky’s Julius Randle confided to his mom that he wanted to play in the Final Four when it came to his home state of Texas in 2014.  Or UConn’s Shabezz Napier, who promised his mom he would graduate after all she had sacrificed for him. Coach Calipari knows the Power of Mom:  “Go hug your mom and dad,” he told Arron Harrison.

Dad’s turn:  Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson’s dad was a superstar for the 1992 Ohio State team that tried to eliminate the Other Five Freshmen in NCAA tournament history—the Michigan Wolverines. Father and son get the same chance to stop a phenom of talented newbies (irony).

With seconds left in the Kentucky-Wisconsin game, Jackson is fouled by Harrison #5 in the three point range and if Jackson goes three-for-three, he can all but seal a Wisconsin win.  Only one second had remained on the shot clock, and now Jackson can take his time at the free throw line (Irony). He’s gotta think the basketball gods are smiling on him.  Especially since statistically, the Badgers are 100% from the free throw line this game.  But the three Weird Sisters of Fate (allusion) come for everyone:  Jackson misses the first of his three shots.

That set up the Wildcats to need a 3 point shot to go ahead.  Harrison #5–yes, the same Harrison who just caused the foul (irony)—passes the ball to Harrison #2, who has only had two points the whole game.  Statistically speaking, he’s not the go to guy for this game, right? (Complication)

But in the previous two games against Louisville and Michigan, Harrison #2 had hit the three-pointer in the waning seconds of the game.  So… (Suspense)

Swish (Onomatopoeia).  Kentucky is ahead.

Back to Jackson who has about 3 seconds to make his own three pointer, to avenge his missed shot, to avenge his father’s team that lost to five freshmen 22 years ago (before any of the players on the court were born), to avoid feeling like Bill Buckner (simile) for an interminable off-season…His shot looks exactly like Harrison’s did a few seconds before…and…and…(Suspense).

No swish. Kentucky wins (Resolution).  Aaron Harrison saved his team with his seconds-left shooting heroics for the third time in three games (Repetition).  He’s like a Greek hero (simile), at first failing his team by only scoring two points previously in the game and then compensating for his failings.

Jackson’s attempt at an heroic shot had downright danced around the rim (personification), but to no avail.  What unseen force bounced it out? Either the laws of physics or the basketball gods (Deus ex machina—more on that later) ricocheted that ball right out of the rim.  Huh?

How did that happen?  Enter:  English teacher.  “Saturday’s missed shot by Traevon Jackson is an example of Deus ex machina, referred to by Horace in his Ars Poetica, when he cautions writers against using a ‘god from the machine’ to resolve their plots unless it’s worthy of a god’s help.Greek tragedy often had a machine bearing a god who resolved conflicts, which sometimes seemed unbelievable.”

But we have to believe what we just saw.  No contrived, finagled ending. Reality television at its best.

I’m an English teacher who knows more about Euripides than I do about basketball, but I think Horace himself would agree that the Kentucky-Wisconsin game was worthy of a god’s ending.

The UConn-Florida game had its literary moments, too.  Florida wins 30 games in a row (repetition).  Florida loses to UConn in December and repeats that performance last Saturday (Foreshadowing. Repetition.  Irony). It’s especially enticing to English teachers when literary elements dovetail.

In the final (literary) analysis, come Monday, when it’s raining cats and dogs (cliché), it will be a 7th seed vs. an 8th seed.  Which literary moment will prevail?  Scenario 1:  7th seeded UConn, who beat 8th seeded Butler for the championship in 2011, beats Kentucky, this year’s 8th seed (Foreshadowing). UConn wants that (Repetition).  Scenario 2: UConn beat Kentucky 56-55 during the 2011 tournament and beats Kentucky again (Foreshadowing).   Scenario 3:  Kentucky avenges the loss by being the 8th seed that beats the very team that voided the last 8th seed’s chance (Irony).

Suspense.  Foreshadowing.  Conflict:  Man vs. Unknown. Theme:  truth is stranger than fiction.  Literary terms at play on the basketball court.  And your nearest English class has a front row seat.  Improbable as it sounds, your English teacher might just be your best color commentator.  Irony, indeed.

It’s anyone’s game.  See you at tip off.  (Cliffhanger).

~ Mary O’Connor (Author)


A Workshop for the Workshop Model

At the end of my first year teaching one student informed me that he learned nothing in my class because all he needed to do to get an A was memorize Sparknotes or reword what other students said during discussions. He explained that he was not challenged because all I cared about was that they had the “right” answer. I was crushed. And exhausted. And seriously doubting my career choice. I had earned a Masters in the art of teaching the year before for crying out loud. What happened? After several days (okay, weeks) of wallowing in self-pity I decided he was right. I taught like I was the most important person in my classroom that year and what I said (or rather, what my teacher manuals said) was the only correct answer. I felt like (still do if I’m being honest) I owed every one of those students an apology. I let them down. I let myself down.

That summer changed everything. I was introduced to the Workshop Model at UNH. And little by little over the past 5 years I have incorporated bits and pieces of this model into my teaching.

And then at the beginning of this year, in walked my past self, only she’s a lot stronger than I was as a student teacher: her name is Tori. She’s bright, fresh-faced, and eager and she challenges me daily by asking me what she probably considers easy questions.

This post is my attempt to answer her questions.

Question 1: What is the Workshop model?

Answer: Simply put, the workshop approach to teaching is a student-centered approach. The teacher and the content take a back seat. Student skills become the focus, the teacher becomes the facilitator (or coach) and the content becomes the vehicle used to teach / refine the necessary skills. The workshop model functions on the idea of authentic, real-world learning and encourages students to become independent, critical and resourceful thinkers.

Question 2: Is this only for English teachers?

Answer: Absolutely not. The key to workshop is a shift in our thinking. Teachers are no longer the only dispenser of knowledge. Students are introduced to a skill (mathematical concept, artistic medium, laboratory technique) and then time is given in class to hone that skill.

Question 3: How do you structure a typical day using this model?

Answer: This is the structure that works for me and I use it almost every single day:

  1. Time to read independently
  2. Time to quickwrite (prompts are usually connected to the day’s lesson or content)
  3. A Mini Lesson: teacher introduces a skill or idea and then models it
  4. Time to practice the lesson (independently or in pairs / groups) Teacher confers with students independently or in groups. This is the heart of workshop.
  5. Time to share (last 5 minutes)

Question 4: How can the workshop model work if we are required to teach content (like whole class novels)?

Answer: Balance is probably the hardest part of my job. And this is the question I am asked most often. For the record, I do believe there is a necessary place for whole-class novels in the workshop model and I have been modifying my approach to teaching the “whole-class novel” each year. Essentially, when I teach a novel like Lord of the Flies I try to work it seamlessly into the current reading lives of my students. They are expected to read each night at home for 30 minutes and during our LoF unit, those 30 minutes are simply spent reading our whole class novel. Do some students set aside their independent read for these 3 weeks? Yes. Others can read both. Essentially, the workshop structure remains the same. Students are introduced to a big idea (or theme) and then given time to explore that idea within the chapter, in class. In most cases, there is no one right answer. Students are expected to make a claim and then find evidence to support that claim.

Here’s my agenda from a class this past December:

  1. Time to read independently (first 10 minutes of class)
  2. Time to quickwrite: prompt from Tori: “He wanted to explain how people were never quite what you thought they were” (Golding 54). Using the quote, make a claim about one of the characters and explain how he isn’t quite what you thought he was. How has he changed?
  3. Mini Lesson on Dynamic Character: Give students the definition of dynamic character. They take notes in their Writer’s Notebooks. Then they work together in groups of 4 to analyze the chapter focusing on the death of Simon. Students are asked to pull quotes from that chapter to show the changes in the other boys on the island. Teacher monitors each group. Then, as a whole class, lead a discussion to connect everything to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs / Zimbardo’s definition as evil. The key is that the teacher is not the focus here. Students work together. There is no one right answer. Students workshop the chapter together and make claims, then find evidence from the novel to support each claim.

Question 5: What are the pros to using a workshop model?


#1: Choice

When students are given the opportunity to choose what they read and write, authentic learning will occur more naturally.

#2: Volume

A workshop model increases the volume of output. Students read and write more on their own and at a faster rate. My first year as a teacher, my kids read maybe 5 novels and wrote maybe 5 pieces all year. At the halfway point in this year most of my kids have already read 10 novels and have written about 9 pieces.

#3 Differentiation

This model allows me to differentiate easier. A workshop model is the best differentiated approach to teaching and learning because students are treated as individuals and the teacher is better equipped to recognize the individual needs and growth of each student.

#4 Responsibility and Personalization

The key to the workshop approach is that the student takes responsibility for what he/she is doing (the topic they are writing about or the novel they are reading). I am no longer the most important person the in room. I am simply their coach. I demonstrate the skill and they practice it. Over and over again until it’s game time (or due). In this way, they are intrinsically motivated and excited about what they are doing.

Question 6: What are the cons to using a workshop model?

Answer: The workshop model is not a free for all. In all honestly, I have found this approach to teaching much harder than the traditional. It takes a deep understanding of students: of their needs, abilities and interests. And most importantly, it only works well if the teacher is able to relinquish some of the control. And for that to happen, you need to establish quite a lot of structure first. For many of us, one of the most difficult things to do is to share the control. It’s so easy to be in charge, to decide from our vast experience and continuing education what’s best for our students. But by making room for students to make their own decisions whenever possible, they will start to develop a sense of responsibility and ownership over their learning. This was exactly what was missing from my first year: ownership over what I was teaching. Finding my way as a teacher has been a journey the past few years, but one I am very thankfully to be taking.

Answers generated by Kristina

Questions generated by Tori

Teachers Talk Teaching: This is the second post in a series of posts on Teacher’s Podium between two or more people who weigh in on an issue important to education. Our approach to this series is captured most closely by our mission statement: “We have Masters degrees, but we are not masters.” These discussions are meant to be the start of a conversation not the final words.

“F”ailure is an Option

At the beginning of the year I preached this nugget of advice to my students: don’t be afraid to fail, take risks, make mistakes. In the end, I told them, they will prove to be some of your greatest learning lessons. So, having said that a number of times already throughout the year, I’ve decided to heed my own advice and put my preaching to practice. I’m typing without going back, ignoring the fact that I might not like exactly how I’ve worded things or how things have been formatted.

Regardless of one’s age, this practice is not an easy one to undertake. And, frankly, it might not have the same effect or impact on the young minds of my freshmen students as it does on an adult my age, but what I’ve found thus far is that it is very freeing and cathartic to accept and welcome failure. I’ll grant you that it’s very easy for me to claim this when I don’t have the looming concern of being graded on this task. However, herein lies the learning lesson for children and adults alike that we need to begin delivering much earlier: it is acceptable, if not flatly beneficial, to fail.

I know this might sound counterintuitive and downright blasphemous for a teacher to assert, but let’s examine this for a moment. In every facet of our lives, from the very early ages of our youth and throughout adulthood, we learn from our failures. As a child especially, this is the case quite often. How did we learn to walk? Or ride a bike? Or write our name? We tried, we failed and we tried again and again and again until we finally got it. All the while, we did so with guidance and support: someone holding our hands as we took our first steps; a hand on our seat as we began to peddle without training wheels; or, someone by our side navigating the movements of our pencil. And even then we weren’t very good at it. Yet, we persevered and now we can do any and all of these things without any thought. As adults, how did we learn to drive a car, cook a meal or even raise a child? We did so by frequently performing the task over an extended period of time, very often inadequately or incorrectly, until we got the hang of it. My point is that we fail a lot more often than we acknowledge or are willing to admit. Why is that? Well, simply put, because we don’t qualify it as failure and instead justify it as part of the learning process. The same should hold true for learning in school.

Sadly, ‘should’ is the operative word in that last sentence; not all classrooms subscribe to the philosophy that failure is an option. Well, I do. In my classroom, there will always be room for improvement. In the end, this yields the learning that teachers, parents and students alike strive for.  After all, when a student hands in inferior work, what good does it serve that child to give them an ‘F’ and move on to the next unit without providing them the opportunity to improve up on it? Similarly, what good would it serve to throw a young child into a pool without some type of swimming device?

I believe that students should not be forced – better yet, even allowed – to experience the fear or anxiety of failure. Unfortunately, by the time a children reach the 9th grade, failure is so stigmatized that when they receive an ‘F’ it becomes their scarlet letter. Failure should be the small steps students take towards eventual success. Schools should work to remove the stigma of failure from our classrooms. By doing so, we’ll foster young adults that are confident, independent and well suited to take risks, confront the challenges that they encounter in their lives to come and not fear learning. After all, they’ll eventually have to swim in the deep end alone.

~ Jonathan

Late Work: To Accept or not to Accept

Teachers Talk Teaching: This is the first post in a series of posts on Teacher’s Podium between two or more people who weigh in on an issue important to education. Our approach to this series is captured most closely by our mission statement: “We have Masters degrees, but we are not masters.” These discussions are meant to be the start of a conversation not the final words.

A Real World Response: Accept It

Over the years, I’ve found myself like many teachers faced with the student, late paper in hand, who can’t seem to get his work in on time. I accept the work with penalty. Typically, the student will lose 10% of the overall grade per day that the paper is late. I find this to be the most fair response to the situation that I can muster. And I consider it fair for a couple of reasons: first, it is in line with the consequences of the world at large; second, I don’t think the quality of the student’s work is based entirely on her ability to hand the paper in on time.

I’ve got a mortgage bill that, like a majority of us, I pay on time monthly, but I’ve noticed that even banks have a policy for the late payer. At the bottom of the bill it says something to the effect, “if you mail this bill beyond this date add x amount.” How many Americans would be out of a home right now if missing a payment deadline was all it took?

While I’d like to have all papers on my desk at the same time so that I can grade student work, the reality is that some students make mistakes along the way. The mistake we are discussing is time based. The fact that a student has not handed his work in on time does not mean he cannot execute the skills we are practicing in the assignment. I prefer to have a policy in place that acknowledges there is a time the paper is due and skills we are measuring as well.

How do you deal with late work?

~ Dennis

A Practical Response: Don’t Accept It

I was tired.  I was tired of students continuously submitting late work.  I was tired of planning a lesson based on what the students had to complete for homework the night before only to have three students come to class prepared. I was tired of keeping track of the late point penalties.  I was tired of that end-of-the-quarter-here-is-all-my-missing-work student.  Most importantly, I was tired of the excuses.

One day, several years ago, I asked some students in my class, “Why aren’t you all submitting work on time?”  Their responses floored me.  “Because it’s not a priority,” one student said.  Another student stated, “We know you’ll accept late work so deadlines don’t really apply.”

What?!  Not a priority? Deadlines don’t apply?  How could they say that?

As teachers, we know the importance of deadlines.  We all had professors in college who would laugh at our excuses for trying to submit a paper a day after class had ended.  We were expected to have lessons and grades submitted on time.  Why shouldn’t our students be held to similar standards?  Isn’t one of our goals to prepare them for life after high school? If we uphold a standard “no late work” policy, then perhaps mortgage companies won’t need to create a policy for the late payer.

I pondered these thoughts for quite some time and came to a simple conclusion: I would no longer accept late work. Since it was nearing the end of the school year when I made the decision, I decided to wait until the following year to implement my new policy.  I knew it would be difficult to uphold; however, I realized it would be an important lesson for my students to learn.

~ Dan V.

The Difference Between a “D” and an “F”

            I can understand that you would feel worn out, especially when you had only three students who were coming to class prepared! That piqued my interest, so I did a little late-work number crunching for my first quarter classes this year.

I have five classes for a total of 95 students, and averaged 12 graded assignments per class for a grand total of 1,140 individual assignments. The total number of late assignments I accepted from students for partial credit was 13, a measly .01% of the assignments. This is a small number to me. One that I’m willing to deal with.

For me, it boils down to the following question: what is the difference between the student who is passing or failing my class? The student who attempts to make up his work is entering into the class conversation, albeit a little late sometimes, and grappling with the skills we are learning. The student who does not make up her work is checking out of class entirely, never practicing those skills, and is not participating in the conversation at all. Accepting work late does not have to be an invitation for mediocrity, either. If a student’s work does not meet competency, I hand hand it back over and say, “Try again.”

I don’t think students who have handed in work late have earned the right to make grade with the “A” students of the class, and the penalty for handing major assignments in late brings their grade down. But by bringing their work to the table they earn a right to have a fighting chance at passing.

~ Dennis

No Late Work=Students Rise to the Challenge

The point you make about students participating in class and learning the necessary skills, albeit a little late, is an interesting one and something I thought about extensively before I instituted a no late work policy.  My biggest concern focused on those borderline students—the ones who are not always engaged in class or the ones who hover around the 60% mark.  If I no longer accepted late work, would happen to them?

To my surprise, almost all of my students followed my expectations.  Yes, it was difficult to implement the policy and it was something I had to remind my students repeatedly—especially at the beginning of each new term.  I prepared myself for every excuse possible and decided that I had to remove any emotional or personal connection (the time one of my best students forgot her work and had to accept a zero was heart-breaking for me!).  I provided consistent and fair expectations and even those so-called struggling students eventually learned the importance of meeting a deadline.  It also helped that I began scaffolding many of my assignments so larger projects were broken down into chunks.

I think your comment, “By bringing their work to the table they earn a right to have a fighting chance at passing” is true and it applies to my class as well.  When I create assignments, I make sure students have plenty of time to complete them and because I teach mostly writing courses, we use class time as a workshop.   If students use their class time wisely, they shouldn’t have any difficulty finishing their work by the deadline.  The students who struggle see the other students working hard and over time, they also begin to work diligently.

A question I still have is, what do you do with those students who continually submit late work?  Sure, they are not earning the full points, but is it fair to the rest of the class? Do you find it difficult to manage the late point penalties?

~ Dan V.

The Extreme Side of Late

            I see late work as the difference between pass and fail not “A” and “A+”. Fairness is not at issue here. Both students, the one handing in work on time and the one handing in work late are expected to execute the same skills.

Managing late work penalties is probably the simplest part of this entire process. First, I do not accept late overnight assignments that need to be handed in for class discussions or class review. Those assignments are made up, without credit, by being a part of class and taking notes. Second, when a student passes in a major assignment like an essay or project late, I jot down the date on the top of the page. Accepting late work means that you’re accepting a piece that needs to be graded while some other stack of papers has been handed in on time. Work handed in on time comes first. Late work second.

If anything is stressful or difficult to manage it is that one student who comes along every so often who doesn’t look at a late work policy as a backup plan, but as his main plan. I find this situation difficult to manage because at some point the student’s focus on the skills we’re practicing is overpowered by his desire just to make up the work. That kind of work is often subpar and unacceptable. But this situation is the exception rather than the rule. To most students, I think the late work policy is a security net rather than an academic game plan.

The student who has trouble getting her work in during a given quarter is not particular to my classes. What do you do when she comes knocking on your door during a rough quarter and the zeros have piled up? We both know that getting back on your feet after a low “F,” even in a four quarter class, is difficult to recover from. I worry about that student who has missed one or two major assignments and says, Forget it, I don’t have a chance anyway. Is there no way to achieve those competencies and work out from under that “F”?

~ Dennis

Security Net: Not Usually Needed

Unfortunately, I realized that many of my former students used a late work policy as a main plan rather than a back up plan.  I was finding that even though they were more than capable of completing the work, they had a lackadaisical attitude about school work in general.  For some reason, they just didn’t follow deadlines.  I tried giving only partial credit for late work but far too often, I had students who abused this policy.  I know it might sound harsh, but the reality is that it just became easier for me to no longer accept any late work.  I should note that students with extended time options in their IEPs are always given the extra time if needed, but the extended due date is agreed upon when the assignment is given.

We all have exceptions to the rule: not every student I have will submit all of his work every time.  When I notice a student falling behind, I conference with him to figure out what we can do to make sure his future assignments are completed.  It’s during these discussions where we can talk about the competencies that need to be completed in order to earn credit for the class.  It may sound like a cliché, but almost every single time, this discussion (or even a parent meeting) is all that’s needed to rectify the low grade.  The students who fail the course would most likely fail even if I did accept late work.

The concern about a student who has a rough quarter and ends up with zeroes is valid and one I have recently faced. Last year, I had a student who was bright, articulate and a solid writer.  She had issues with attendance and would miss class on a regular basis.  Unfortunately, she neglected to make up some of her work and she received several zeroes during the third quarter which caused her to have a failing grade at one point.  She did start to give up and had the reaction you mentioned (“Forget it—I don’t have a chance anyway!”).   Like most teachers would do, I met with the student and we worked out a plan to ensure that her future assignments would be submitted on time.  We also looked at the big picture—sometimes showing a student that she won’t fail for the year by opening up our grade book can eliminate that “I don’t have a chance anyway” attitude.

The bottom line is this: with consistent enforcement and specific expectations, students will rise to the challenge of submitting work on time.  I was hesitant to believe it myself until I tried it.   All of my concerns about having a safety net or meeting the needs of the struggling students were pretty much eliminated because the students did what I expected them to do. There was no gray area for them. It was a great feeling for me to collect all of their work on the assigned due date and I know that it gave my students a sense of accomplishment as well.

~ Dan V.

Finding Success in Hell

“Ms. Catcher, do you have Inferno?”

Inferno?” I asked.  I looked up at Sean*, a skinny freshman with small gages in his ears and a bleached blonde buzz cut.  His punk skater image matched the rebellious reputation of the book he had recently finished: The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  This was the first time he had come to me with a book request for his independent reading.

“Yeah, you know that book about hell.”  I couldn’t help but chuckle—when Sean came into my classroom he associated books with being in hell, now he wanted a book on hell.

“Um, yeah, let me find it.  Dante’s Inferno?” I repeated again.  I tried to mask my surprise but could hear my voice crack with the title.

“Yeah, that one,” he said straight-faced.  The image of my tired college English professor popped into my head; the threadbare sports jacket he wore as he droned on about Inferno; I remember feeling like he single-handedly had pulled me through all nine circles of hell.

Sean owned the video game adaptation of the book, which had sparked his interest.  I handed him a copy, warning, “This is a hard read.  Even if you get through part of it, that will be impressive!  I read this in college.”  I felt the need to somehow soothe his frustrations even before he started.

“Ok.” He brushed off my warnings.

Every day I watched Sean crack open Inferno and slowly make his way through the convoluted English translation.  And every day I expected Sean to walk into my classroom and abandon the book.  But he didn’t.

“How much does he really understand though?” asked another teacher after I brought up Sean’s accomplishments.  She made a good point.  Not only was Sean in my academic class, the lowest level in my tracked school, he had also scored partially proficient in reading on his state standardized tests over the past two years.  Even if Sean didn’t understand the book in its entirety, I believe he gained just as much as any freshman English major dissecting the poem.

Sean might not have delved into the intricacies of the epic poem, but he took away a sense of confidence and pride that can only accompany struggle.  Many students lack the reading stamina Sean exhibited, an essential skill for success in post-secondary schooling.  Students can be quick to abandon books, and I have found that it isn’t until students become more developed, advanced readers that they understand the value of pushing beyond the first ten or even one hundred pages of a book to get to the “good stuff.”  Despite Sean’s distaste for reading prior to this year, his hunger for a challenge paired with the independent reading initiative allowed Sean to build his stamina and prove himself as a reader.  As Sean said, “I kept telling myself it’s just a book.  You can keep reading.”  Reading Inferno stemmed from his curiosity and transformed into an undertaking of pride.

Sean’s experience with Inferno didn’t include deep literary analysis and his takeaway would most likely make my stuffy college professor cringe, but I’d argue that Sean learned the lesson Dante intended: perseverance and hard work lead to significant achievements.

~ Jackie

*The name has been changed to protect the identity of the student

Intern Identity Crisis

I’m an intern this year. A clueless grad student cast away from the university I just started to call home into the not-so-real world of unpaid labor. In those first few weeks of student teaching, all I felt was this overwhelming terror. My stomach would somersault as I stood near the edges of the classroom, watching my cooperating teacher work her magic. I felt my identity crisis setting in. How could I teach like all of those who have inspired me in the past, or even the teacher before me, with half a dozen years of experience tucked in her pocket? Those teachers were my opposite: older, wiser, weathered from all that the teaching profession throws at you. So what kind of teacher would I be?

I’ll get back to you when I have an answer.

I do, however, have an idea of who I am, who I will be as a teacher. I am passionate and excited, like only an intern can be. I am loud, for I can’t be anything else. I am trying. More than anything else, I am trying. And I’m enjoying every single day.

This is the beauty of my internship. I have been granted the time and space to figure out exactly who I want to be when I grow up. My cooperating teacher has welcomed me to invade her classroom and claim a bit of it as my own. For this I am grateful. How else was I supposed to learn to teach, or deal with the blank stares of students, or work with my worst fear- parents? A lot of my success as an intern stems from her. She is a resource to me that I use daily. It’s not that she has any answers, but together, we discuss those big teaching questions that seem to fade away as the years go on. From her I’ve learned that collaboration is a big aspect of identity in the classroom. I get ideas, notice things I wouldn’t have seen alone, and hear about all the great things she’s done over her years of experience.

I also firmly believe in the phrase “fake it till you make it.” I fake confidence a lot of days, and I pretend like everything is on the lesson plan, but as anyone who stands before a wolf pack of high school students knows, confidence and perfect planning are not always in great supply. A large part of who I am is based on my students; they are the only mirror I have when teaching, so sometimes a little faking goes a long way when it comes to their comfort, and therefore my comfort in the classroom.

My internship is a gift both for me and from me. Every day when I plug in the string lights behind my desk I start forming who I am as a teacher. I start wrangling the eccentricities that help, keep shedding the nerves that don’t. I’m getting there, so that one day in the not-so-far future, when students stare at me for the answers and there’s no one else to turn to, I’ll be able to teach them with confidence. By then, maybe I’ll have a better idea of who I am. But for right now, I’m happy just trying to figure it out.

~ Tori

Teacher Burnout

When I first became a teacher I distinctly remember being told that what my kids read doesn’t really matter as long as they are thinking “critically” and using “higher-order” thinking skills. And I thought to myself okay, I can do that. And I did. I taught novel after novel. I created (or borrowed or begged and sometime stole) worksheets, tests and projects that I felt taught “critical thinking skills.” But something was off.

That first year was a blur. I never felt ready for the next day’s lesson. I never felt like I was on top of the various initiatives and expectations. I never felt caught up on grading. In the spirit of full disclosure, I don’t think I’ve ever felt “caught up” on grading.

That year I was focused on one thing: surviving.

Year two was less of a blur, but still a struggle. In fact, each year brings with it new struggles: classes are different, students are different, initiatives are different. We are in danger of burning out each year. It’s the best and worst part of teaching: that each year is a new start.

When I think back on it, I’m a bit surprised that I survived my first few years of teaching. According to the National Center for Education Statistics every year U.S. schools hire more than 200,000 new teachers. By the time the school year is over, at least 22,000 have quit. 30 percent of new teachers leave the profession after three years, and more than 45 percent leave after five.

Why? Why do a little less than half of us leave after we’ve spent 5 years in the profession?

Surprisingly, our notoriously low salary isn’t the reason; nor are our students. In fact, less than 20% of teachers who leave say it’s because of low pay. The most cited reasons for teachers leaving the profession are lack of support from administration and feeling powerless in curriculum and instruction decisions. It makes sense. Burnout begins when one feels powerless about curriculum decisions, what to do with department time, standardized testing constraints, or even how to teach. For many teachers, years of feeling powerless can sap their motivation, and they quit.

So, how can we get fight back against burnout? For me it all comes down to two things: collaboration and choice.

Collaboration: In my opinion, most teachers don’t get enough time to collaborate. We have to find it out on our own. Teachers need time: to collaborate and commiserate, to talk about our teaching, to learn about new techniques, approaches or tools. For me, it happens in hallway chats, during lunch and over summer break. I can’t control the time we are given, but I can make sure to use the few chances we are given to my advantage because I know I am a better teacher when given the chance to collaborate.

Choice: No, I cannot always choose to teach whatever I want (let’s be honest, if I could, my classes would all be reading Stephen King), but I can choose how I approach each new educational reform or school focus. We burnout because the rotating cast of initiatives and the “language of education” are always changing. But we have a choice. We can choose to collaborate, approach our lessons creatively, attend professional development and keep an open mind.

When all is said and done, teaching and learning revolves around one fact: true education only happens with intrinsic motivation, a desire to learn because we are passionate about the subject. If we are not self-motivated to become better educators, we simply cannot expect the same of our students.

We can choose to change. We can choose to collaborate. We can choose to find new ways to reignite our passion for teaching. Passion leads to skill, which leads to mastery.

And passion is what protects us against burnout.


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