noun is adjective

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Posted by nina on September 7, 2010

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words in context

Posted by nina on July 30, 2010

Last night I started reading “36 Children,” Herbert Kohl’s account of his first year as a public-school teacher in Harlem. Like Jonathan Kozol and Sylvia Ashton Warner, Kohl is constantly cited in my textbooks for his revelations on public education. (It’s surprising to me that classes don’t assign these trade books, since they are both more insightful and more engaging than our texts. But I digress.)

Something that jumped out at me immediately was Kohl’s account of how his sixth-graders were fascinated by his method of defining the word psyche by contextualizing it within Greek myth. Capitalizing on their interest, Kohl used the root psyche as a hook to introduce psychic and psychology, and eventually went on to replace the prescribed vocabulary curriculum with a study of the evolution of language. He writes:

Before we talked about language and myth the children, if they thought about it at all, felt that most words were either arbitrary labels pinned on things and concepts the way names seem to be pinned onto babies, or indicators as connections amongst these labels. These “labels” probably represented the way the adult world capriciously decided to name things. I doubt whether the children ever thought of adults as having received language from other adults even more remote in time.

Although he was referring to black children in the early 1960s, this observation strikes me as profoundly applicable to English language learners today. Especially for young children who have not yet learned to recognize parts of speech, English must seem like an arbitrary string of unfamiliar sounds; the direction to “write a complete sentence” as incomprehensible as asking someone who has no carpentry experience to build the frame for a house. A young student’s response is invariably a disjointed string of letters resembling words in groupings resembling a sentence. But missing are the foundation, the necessary supports, the correct type of nails…

This analogy makes me wonder if sentence construction could be taught within an ordered framework such as a plant, with subject as root, verb as stem, adjectives as flowers.

More relevant, since I don’t intend to teach elementary school, would be to introduce new vocabulary in context. I already planned to do this to some extent, selecting words for each unit from resource texts and key concepts. But in addition, we could inspect words’ applications, their etymology, their connotations. And there is truly no better subject than social studies in which to analyze the power of words on the collective unconscious! (socialism, anyone?)

Incidentally (and curiously), the WordPress spellcheck software does not recognize the word contextualize (which Merriam-Webster traces to 1934) and suggests that I replace it with conceptualize (which is not what I meant). Yesterday I learned that this type of search-and-replace spellchecking is called the Cupertino effect, which makes me happy because I love being able to assign names to specific annoyances, such as palimpsest. If you know of other terms that describe similarly insignificant irritations, please share! (For example, is there a word that adequately sums up “misuse of the I-before-E rule”? There should be.)

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Posted by nina on July 29, 2010

My writing workshop, “This is What it Was in the 1880s,” ended today with a bang. The kids had fun writing six-word memoirs, which we inserted into the book template at the last second. While the books went to press, I opened a PDF styled after Facebook and let them go to town with it.

The students had a blast. The parents who showed up early were all smiles. A bunch of people (kids and parents) stayed late and didn’t want to leave. I had to email them the template so they could play with it at home. Revisionist history was definitely a success.

Although I would love to post all of their contributions, I’m only sharing a taste. Here’s part of Leif Eriksson’s Facebook Profile, compiled in 10 minutes by Sam, Parker, Carlos, and Finn, ages 11-13. Enjoy.

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seeds of change

Posted by nina on July 29, 2010

Obama said some things about teaching today. I heard a couple of news blips on NPR while I was waking up, and then I read some more in The Atlantic. I have some thoughts, which I will try to keep brief.

First of all, I recently got into a heated conversation with my aunt and uncle about gardening. I had to watch a video about communication for an assignment a couple of months ago, and part of it really stuck with me. The class in the video is working on a long-term project to grow a butterfly garden. They build raised beds, plant seeds, care for their seeds, and keep records of the entire process. The unit takes many weeks and introduces skills from math, science, economics, and language arts. There are clips of the kids saying “wow!” and getting excited about bugs and seedlings and butterflies.

Ever since I saw this video, I have been asking myself one question: Why isn’t every school in America doing this? Why doesn’t every school harvest rainwater? Why doesn’t every school keep a vegetable garden? Why don’t schools have fruit trees and compost piles?

(I’ll admit that maybe I’m getting a little carried away with the compost idea, since in some urban areas it would probably take on the role of rat buffet. But composting is easier than many people seem to think. The other day a new friend tried to convince me that composting is impossible in the Arizona desert because it’s too dry. But in my back yard there’s a $3 plastic storage bin full of rich black dirt that would suggest otherwise. Never underestimate the power of fly larvae.)

So, returning to my original topic, I was asking my uncle these questions. I wanted to know if there was any conceivable reason why we couldn’t take on a project that would conserve resources, repurpose public spaces, feed our communities, and educate and involve students all at the same time. Not only that, but this project would be affordable and aesthetically pleasing. It could involve community members of all ages and levels of education. It would promote metacognition as students learned from their mistakes and from each other. It would be interdisciplinary and relevant to students’ lives. Most importantly, it would show students that hard work pays off.

After a while he just shrugged and said “You’re right. I really don’t know.”

Somewhere in all that, I’ve hidden my response to Obama. In case you didn’t catch it, I’ll paraphrase it here: You’re right. Teachers do need to be held accountable. But that’s only part of the solution, because teachers are only part of the problem. If parents aren’t involved, it’s because school is not a welcoming place. Let’s make it one. If kids can’t focus it’s because they’re hungry. Let’s feed them. If they’re not learning skills it’s because those skills aren’t useful to them. Let’s make them relevant.

Gardening is not the only way to do this. There are so many other ways to involve kids in the community and to involve community members in the schools. And there’s no reason not to do it. It’s not like we have anything to lose.

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Posted by nina on July 20, 2010

Over the weekend I got absorbed in Doug Lemov’s book “Teach Like A Champion,” and I couldn’t wait to try out some of the techniques he recommends. So this week I have been trying to teach like a champion. So as not to overwhelm myself, I decided to try focusing on just two techniques each day.

Yesterday I chose “What To Do” and “100 Percent.” (Lemov gives each technique a proper name so they can be easily discussed. I think it’s genius.) “100 Percent” is intended to set the expectation that it’s not enough to give the teacher most of what she asks for. If I ask for quiet, I need to wait until every student is quiet before I speak. It sounds simple, but it was extremely difficult to put into practice. The writing lab is full of adult tutors — I’d guess there’s about a 1:3 ratio of tutors to kids — and it’s difficult to achieve authority when there are so many potential authority figures in the room. At first I was surprised by this, because I would have predicted that the strong adult presence would have a positive effect on students’ compliance with directions. After reflecting, however, I realized that unless the adults in the room can just as easily undermine the entire effort. If even one tutor continues to converse with a student after I ask for silence, or doesn’t actively enforce my request, the students will assume I’m not worth listening to and continue whatever they were doing.

“100 Percent” was a tough one. But I definitely like it, so I’ll keep working on it.

The premise of “What To Do” is that students are less likely to follow vague directions (“pay attention”) than specific ones (“put down your pencil and and turn to look at me”). I was somewhat skeptical about this one, but I decided to try it anyway. I had an opportunity right off the bat when a couple of boys at my table started playing with scotch tape. This galls me because it is a banned activity and it is wasteful. I told the boys, “Stop it, you guys. That’s banned.” Their only response was to look at me impassively and press the tape tighter over their lips. So I switched my focus to one boy and said, “Alonso, take the tape back to the bookshelf and then come sit here next to me.” Lo and behold, it worked. Not only did Alonso pick up the tape dispenser and take it to its place on the other side of the room; but he then returned to the seat I pointed out, which was across the table from the boy he had been messing around with.  It was incredible. I am definitely keeping this technique in my arsenal from now on.

Today I chose to work on “Strong Voice,” a technique with several components. Using “Strong Voice” means showing the kids that you refuse to lower behavioral expectations. It goes hand-in-hand with “100 Percent” because it dictates how to react if students are being noncompliant. And it’s difficult in the writing lab for the same reasons that “100 Percent” is difficult. (But I’m determined to get silence one of these days!) My biggest challenges were not talking over students and not engaging with misbehavior. These two teacher techniques are extremely important to authority because giving in to persistent noise and misbehavior shows weakness, and students will walk all over you as a result. It’s difficult not to talk over students because it is so hard to get their attention in the first place, and waiting for students to sense something wrong and grow silent doesn’t work with so many adults around. It’s equally difficult to avoid engagement with a student who is acting out for attention, especially if he has something interesting to say! Lemov recommends not even acknowledging extraneous comments, even to say “that’s beside the point.” It’s easier than it sounds.

So far I’m learning a lot from these recommendations. I plan to continue sampling a technique or two every day to find the ones that are most effective for me. I have come across some challenges, of course, but I foresee encountering some type of challenge in every environment I teach in. Even when I have my own classroom and policies, I’ll still have to meld my personal style with the school’s behavioral policies and maybe even contend with other teachers whose methods clash with my own. And kids will just keep coming up with new ways to irritate their teachers…

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cracking pages

Posted by nina on July 14, 2010

I’ve been busy writing lesson plans for ELL Camp and a Revisionist History writing workshop that starts next week.

This week is pirate week at camp, so all the lessons have been pirate themed. So far the kids have formed pirate crews (mine is the Swashbuckling Buccaneers), made pirate hats, used quotation marks by writing stories about pirates, learned how to play 20 questions, and written articles for a pirate newspaper.

In my free time I have been reading as much as possible. (though not as much as I would like!) I just finished Roberto Bolaño’s “2666,” which was 898 pages of intense, lyric, and sometimes baffling prose. Fortunately it was divided into three volumes for portability. Unlike most books it actually earned its jacket description of “a sweeping tour de force.”

Right now I am reading Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” as well as Italo Calvino’s “Numbers In The Dark.” I like to think I am absorbing the latter by osmosis because it has been on my night stand for almost two months now. I only read one story at a time, when I am too tired to focus on anything more substantial. It has a fantastic title, don’t you think?

As if I didn’t already have enough books waiting in queue, I just got a delivery of three more from Powell’s:

“The Urban Homestead” was the most straight-forward, informative guide to sustainable city living that I could find. Just from browsing, I have already seen some techniques I would like to implement in my victory garden (covered self-watering containers, mulch) and some things that are probably not worth attempting (raised beds, which would be impractical in the sandbox that is my yard).

On a side note, Lucy the surrogate kitten mama has reported that my garden is suffering greatly under the Arizona sun. This is disappointing, of course, but I am hoping that if I restart seedlings when I get home in mid-August that there will still be enough time to grow some things for an early winter crop. Since the season that most people call “fall” feels more like spring in the desert Southwest, I’m hoping to trick the plants into producing fruit before the end of the year — hopefully in time to make delicious soups when it gets Really Cold!

Returning to books, “Norwegian Wood” is the book for this month’s 826LA West staff/intern book club (and an excellent excuse to add to my Murakami collection). And “Teach Like A Champion” is a book I have been dying to read since I heard about on NPR a few months ago. Since then, I was also impressed to read a blog by a junior high history teacher who documented his experience of using some of Lemov’s suggestions. Due to the scientific nature of his experiment, he was able to observe himself and his students in a new light, and to develop his methods from the experience. It sounds like an eye-opening book, and I’m psyched to read it.

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students with multiple disabilities

Posted by nina on June 20, 2010

Today’s New York Times cover story is about the public education system’s responsibility to accommodate students with severe disabilities. It’s a sensitive issue, and the author does an impressive job conveying the virtues of the current system (stimulating environments, devoted teachers and aides) alongside the drawbacks (minimal academic progress, disproportionate per-student funding).

“It’s an awkward period,” Mr. Rose said, in talking about the education of children with the most severe cognitive disabilities. “Because we know what we are doing is not right, and we often don’t talk about things when we don’t know what we are doing about them yet.”

Definitely worth a read. And if you can get past the typos, check out the comments too.

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Posted by nina on June 19, 2010

I spent Thursday afternoon working with a kid who has a lot of things working against her: learning disabilities, mood disorder, hearing loss. She told me right away it had been a rough day emotionally and then had a minor meltdown regarding missing assignments. Her step-mom had highlighted all the missing assignments on the kid’s progress reports, which came out to about every other entry on the list. It was legitimately an overwhelming amount of work, and I can’t blame the kid for cracking under pressure.

I gave her a couple minutes to collect herself, then put the progress reports out of view and told her to prepare for her upcoming English test by working on some study questions. I was scared she would refuse to read, like so many other kids, but miraculously she settled down and was immediately absorbed in the book.

After a few minutes I grabbed a clean sheet of paper and started to compose a list of things the kid needs to do to improve her grade within the next week. First on the list were things she needs to ask her teacher about: a worksheet she lost, a couple of quizzes she needs to retake. Then I listed the projects she’s missing for no good reason, and finally the two assignments that aren’t due until next week. Next to each assignment I wrote how many points it could earn toward her final grade. It was a sizable amount; probably enough to boost her from a 65% to a C or B.

I have no problem admitting that I left a few things off the list. A 5-point vocab worksheet from February is not going to help her nearly as much as a 50-point chapter summary, and I wanted to keep the list at a manageable length.

All things considered, our session couldn’t have gone much better. By the end of two hours she had finished two pages of study questions and accomplished a good amount of reading. When her dad arrived, she was laughing because someone in the book had used the name “Prometheus,” which sounded funny to her, and then she had a lightbulb moment when I told her who Prometheus was. (Is there any literature that doesn’t tie back to mythology?)

Dad was impressed with my agenda, leading me to realize that parents get just as overwhelmed by long lists of missing assignments as their kids do. Both of them seemed relieved to see things written out as a to-do list. It’s funny how the same information presented a different way can look positive rather than daunting. But I guess the marketing industry figured that out a while ago!

I’ll be waiting to hear how much the kid got done over the weekend… Hopefully the meltdowns are over with and she can get down to business.

(Incidentally, my mom used to call missing assignments “outstanding work,” which always confused the heck out of me because in my mind the word outstanding has positive connotations. Although I was never in danger of failing a class, I did sometimes forget to do a bit of homework. I even had a meltdown now and then, usually because I had underestimated the amount of work a project would take or because I didn’t feel like doing homework all weekend or maybe I was just hormonal. I mean, we’ve all been there, right?)

I watched “The Reader” last night. I’m not going to ruin the ending for anyone, but let’s just say it had a powerful impact on me and reaffirmed my faith in books. …Not that it has ever wavered.

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new words

Posted by nina on June 16, 2010

Today’s words were all familiar, but that doesn’t mean I could have described them for you, so I looked them up.

efflorescence, n.
“Contact with other cultures often triggers a cultural flowering. Anthropologists call this phenomenon efflorescence.”
process of unfolding or developing; highest point

polemics, n.
“History is the polemics of the victor.” –William F. Buckley, Jr.

art or practice of argumentation or controversy

manumission, n.
“Manumission gradually flagged … because most of the white Southerners who, like Jefferson, kept their slaves, grew rich.”


nadir, n.
The years between 1890 and 1920 were the nadir of American race relations.
the lowest point

paean, n.
(I can’t remember where I encountered this word and I can’t find it used in any meaningful context.)
song of joyful praise or exultation

–from James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me

My new favorite online resource is Wordnik, which not only provides definitions and examples, but also locates where the word appears in Twitter feeds, plus lots of other interesting analytics.

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belligerence, aka adolescence

Posted by nina on June 10, 2010

The other day I ate dinner with an enormous group of mostly strangers in a fancy-schmancy restaurant in Laguna Beach. Because our group was massive and the restaurant was fairly busy, our service took about 4 hours all told, from first drinks at the bar to the arrival of the bill and our (somewhat tipsy) departure.

At one point I excused myself to the bathroom. I had just stepped into a stall when the door opened and two girls came in, talking loudly enough that I could not help but listen to their conversation. (What happened to piped-in restroom music? Was that a ’90s thing?)

The weird thing about their chatter — and the reason it gets a post of its own — was that it was impossible for me to tell how old they were; not from their topic of conversation nor their tone of voice. While they sort of sounded like young teenagers, they also sounded a bit like drunk twenty-somethings.

Then came the revelation: There’s no difference.

Here are a few things that tipsy college students and hormonal adolescents have in common:

  1. They have a very short attention span,
  2. They experience unpredictable moodswings,
  3. They are irritable,
  4. They have minimal control of their extremities,
  5. They may experience a loss of inhibition,
  6. They are egocentric,
  7. They are resistant to authority,
  8. They should be discouraged from drinking (more) alcohol,

etc. Genius, right? I’m excited to test this theory on some of our more rambunctious middle schoolers by treating them as I would normally treat a drunk friend: with patience, humor, and firm expectations.

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