Lesson Plans, Literature, and Action!


One of several thank you cards

At last, a 12-week immersion as a high school English Literature, English Language, and a writing instructor has come to an end. My former school, at which I served as a teacher and assistant principal, used my services during a teacher’s maternity leave. It was great to be back in the classroom. Yet, with also working both days of the weekend on my other pursuits, I’d only had 4 days off prior to Thanksgiving weekend.

Since the absent teacher never attempted to contact me or oversee what I was doing with her charges, I was free to modify the curriculum. However, I requested the administration to provide syllabi previously used. The chance to delve into classics like Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” were treats, as I’d never read them before. However, it was nostalgic to re-visit Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter because I’d had it as the main piece of literature in my own high school junior year.

Working with students for their AP English Language course brought studies in grammar, rhetoric, and a slew of literary devices I’d not previously been acquainted with, but I captured a greater appreciation for the structure and strategies used in oral and written communication. We also explored the classical appeals of Aristotle, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” and tactics used by advertisers to influence consumers. Yet, with all these great learning adventures and getting to know and work with my wonderful students, the most exciting result from my teaching term was the chance to make movies!

When we were about halfway through with it, in order to challenge the students with relating the psychosocial dynamics of Hawthorne’s novel, they collaborated via small groups of 5-6 to write modern-day versions of the tale. Upon completion of their stories, they were given the opportunity to vote for continuing the novel along more conventional means of assessment or to cultivate new skills in creating a film. I’d explained that it would entail storyboarding, costumes, props, filming, stage direction, and editing. Of three classes participating in voting through secret ballots, the two honors classes chose to tackle the film project. After starting down this process though, three students requested to not opt for doing the film, so I’d written separate lesson plans for them throughout the 3 weeks that the other students scurried about the school to find settings where they could film. We’d even explored green screen filming, as having school stairwells was often the only place that they could shoot.

I’ll admit that I spent a good portion of their periods popping into monitor their arguments, noting that sometimes they were getting attention because in the boy groups one had to play Hester, and in the girl groups some had to assume the male roles of Rev. Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. There were times when they’d have to suspend their filming in the hallways when troops of elementary kids traversed their path to go to prayer or the library. Favors were requested of teachers for their tolerance of my students’ intrusions to request props they’d spied within classrooms, using the Main Office counter and reception windows to simulate a hotel desk, getting knowledge on how to use an SLR camera for recording, and to request administration to allow some of the girls to wear abayas instead of school uniforms to speed up getting into costume each day. At times, I’d wondered if they’d be able to make the deadline I’d set the day before my final day there, but I saw the overall happiness, true engagement, and ownership the students invested in their projects.

The leadership of some students rose as they directed, social skills evolved as one student who normally showed little responsive affect was transformed through his peers coaching him on how to be a leading man. As part of the movie script, one of the students actually gave another a greatly fashionable haircut, and I saw them beam in brotherly solidarity. Girls who had seemingly opposite personalities at first clashed, but then came together as great actors.

Then one day, an obviously very bright, but undermotivated, student stopped by my desk before leaving and said, “Miss, I just want you to know that now I really like coming to school.” My heart melted, then felt sad that it implied that he normally did not like school, and finally I determined whatever the outcome, this crazy venture was worthwhile.

The students’ films varied in the final analysis from Good to Awesome. On our final day together, I’d asked them to please give me a reflection and feedback on how I could support them better if I were ever to do this again. They confirmed what I knew in that there should have been interim goals and milestones established. Now I know what those should be. We really did not appreciate the value of detailed storyboarding until the shooting began. At times I saw students doing numerous re-shoots of scenes, and I’d tell them to leave it, edit later, and move on to the next scene. If I were to do it again, I’d create a rubric that specifies more about required storyboard elements, the expectations for sound effects, music, a shooting schedule, and a standard for opening and closing segments.

Overall, I’d describe this though as one of the most daring and successful experiences. Prior to the start, I’d taken the time to build trust; know my students; openly admit that I’d not tried this with any class before, but that I would help them learn something new in creating their own film.

In 12 weeks, my intention was to move the bar forward for these students in my charge. Working with commitment, integrity, and diligence, and I am gratified when I see it reciprocated in my students’ efforts. Being a teacher is not easy, but never underestimate the impact you can have, hopefully for good.

Next, I’m scheduled for some foot surgery which will involve some bone cutting…. Wearing a special boot, I’ll be creating 2 education presentations for the MAS-ICNA Convention in Chicago the last week in December. Also, as programming chairperson for the ISNA Education Forums, I will be presenting in Costa Mesa, CA January 18-19 and Chicago April 19-21, God willing.

Meanwhile, as I convalesce, I have my iPad Kindle loaded with books and will be listening to piano adagios. 😉

Back to School for American Literature

img_0125Back to School
The students returned this day. I was summoned a week ago to substitute for 12 weeks to teach several courses in high school Honors American Literature, AP English Language, and writing instruction. Although the home painting projects will be delayed, I’m thrilled to be back at my former school and recognized some students I worked with a few years ago on another long-term substituting assignment. It gives a special feeling to see them again and note how they’ve grown.

The chance to immerse in classic writings from some literary greats is exciting. I don’t recall, probably because it was so long ago if I had truly engaged with some of them before. Yet, others, like Edgar Allen Poe, were certainly on my syllabus when I was a student. Somehow, although I do not deny there is value in exploring these works with students at this point in the journey of their lives, I expect that I will relish the craft of writing more as a mature reader.

Returning back to school also implies adapting to a new school environment. My classroom is in the new school annex and has student desks which form collaborative clusters rather nicely. Granted, my students are mostly upperclassmen, but I never had desks that welcome such creative methods, and research bears out that the classroom design lends much to the learning process. This, I reminded myself as I balanced on a student chair to reach the upper limits of the classroom bulletin board while struggling to not crinkle the heck out of the large roll of colorful paper I was stapling to secure.

To celebrate our first half day, I utilized murder mysteries whereby student groups received thirty clues and had to decipher the identity of the murderer, time, place, weapon, and motive. Through this brief challenge, I was able to discern who were the leaders, how comfortable some students were, and which ones seemed more reserved.

Then I noted among each section, that only in the single average-leveled course there was a decidedly unmotivated, learned helplessness attitude among the group, and some were quite proficient to use their voices in lieu of their grey matter to sabotage the industrious brainwork I’d hoped to ignite. Therein lies the challenge for me! I will have to delicately work to nudge this group toward achievement with small successes that will build trust and hopefully yield the satisfaction of accomplishment. As this is a pattern I have seen in a tracked curriculum, I know how to override this; the solution is to meet the students where they are at. For if you don’t have your students’ trust and confidence, they will hesitate to risk not being “cool” in the presence of their peers.

Well, back to writing syllabi and detailed lesson plans for the week ahead on a Friday night because I’m juggling other work projects which gives me no days off, except for Eid al-Adha into November. Happy reading!