Archive for October, 2013

Abolishing the Honour Roll

Posted: October 31, 2013 in Education

I always start out my grade 10 course with a unit on short stories. We usually cover five short stories in a span of about three weeks. I have always begun my course teaching Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron – a futuristic, dystopian story about the United States’ attempt to equalize all of its citizens. In doing so, its citizens are forced to wear ‘handicaps’ in cases where citizens are too beautiful, too smart, or too strong.

In our analysis of the story, I ask my students whether or not this is the kind of equality we should be striving for to which their response is an overwhelming “no.” Then, we usually find ourselves in a discussion about the celebration of differences, rather than the hindering of them.

Two recent news stories have me thinking about the events that took place in the aforementioned story. The first news story took place last week when a high school football team beat their opponent by a large margin. A parent of a child from the losing team accused the victors of ‘bullying’ her son because of how the end score made him feel. Hmm…

The second news story was one that I heard on the radio this morning about a school in Calgary that has decided to abolish the honour roll program. Why? It makes the students who do not make the list feel bad about themselves. In case you are unfamiliar with the honour roll program, it awards students with a certificate if their overall academic average is 80%+.

In both news stories, it is becoming increasingly evident that we are more like Vonnegut’s futuristic society than we think. Are we trying to abolish success and difference in all its forms? Should the players who are beaten badly in a sport or the students who do not make the honour roll list not just ‘deal with it’? Of course they should! Instead, we seem to be too concerned with coddling the next generation of athletes and learners when they should be using those unpleasant moments as opportunities to grow and become greater.

For example: I never made the honour roll until grade 12. From grades 9-11, I felt awful that I simply didn’t have the average to make the list. So, you know what I did? I continued to work my butt off until I made it. The harsh reality is that sometimes we don’t perform as well as we’d like and not only is that O.K…that’s life! There are standards in life – simply taking these away is not the answer. These standards should be motivating to us more than anything else.

Didn’t make the honour roll? Try harder, get extra help, and study a little more. Your work ethic will pay off.

Got beat badly in a sport? Try harder and practice more.

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In the Public Eye

Posted: October 29, 2013 in Education, Humanity

Rob-Ford-Mayor-of-Toronto

Toronto Mayor: Rob Ford (above)

I’ll say, honestly, that I don’t know much about politics. However, I believe that I know enough to get by in a conversation and not sound ridiculous, and I feel as though I can make an educated vote when the time comes around.

Lately, Toronto’s 64th Mayor – Rob Ford – has been in the news. Well, actually, he’s been in the news a lot since his term started back in 2010. I am hard-pressed to find a list of good things he has done for the city, but I have heard he’s actually a good mayor. I can’t find anything else on him except for the piles and piles of news stories revolving around public displays of drunkeness, drug abuse, and accusations of sexual assault. Now, I have no idea whether these stories have any legitimacy, but there was a story from the summer that caught my attention:

On AM640 – a radio station I have been listening to recently – they discussed a news story about Rob Ford. The situation is this: Every summer, Toronto hosts an event called “Taste of the Danforth”, which is a popular event held across three days with varying types of entertainment and food vendors. In attendance was Rob Ford, who took it upon himself to have a few drinks and was unfortunately (or, fortunately) recorded slurring his words when speaking to some Torontonians.

Rob Ford is often referred to as one of the people.

Anyway, AM640 had callers phone in their thoughts on whether or not they felt Rob Ford was out of line given his occupation. I was surprised by how many Rob Ford supporters phoned in to explain how they were disgusted by how negatively he is portrayed in the media. Callers said that they didn’t mind his behaviour, as long as it didn’t affect his work. Another few callers said that a politician with a bit of a “normal” side was better than a standoffish-stoic politician. While other callers said that he should be able to enjoy himself at a public event as “one of us.”

My feeling on this is simple: Due to nothing more than his occupation, Rob Ford must understand that he gives up certain liberties by taking the job as mayor in one of the largest cities in the world. So, can he not have some beers at a public event? I guess. Does it, however, make more sense to maybe only have one or two beers so that he can hold a slur-less conversation with his fellow citizens? Definitely. He needs to be careful with how he presents himself.

Now, I am nowhere near his social stature in the public eye, but I can relate to some degree. Being a teacher and living within the same general area as my students (at most, one or two towns away) I need to make sure that I conduct myself appropriately in public in case a student or parent/guardian see. I am an extension, representation, and reflection of my school, much like Rob Ford is of Toronto. Is he held to a higher standard than the rest of us? You better believe he is.

He loses the respect of his citizens every day and that is something that is difficult to regain in the eyes of both citizens and students, alike.

For what it’s worth, I am willing to chalk this up as a one-time error…along with the other 100+ errors he’s made while in office.

But, you know, we all make mistakes.

Engaging with Characters

Posted: October 29, 2013 in Education, Humanity, Literature

owenmeany

Making students see the value in reading is a tough task. Most students do not read much on their own and when they do, as I have stated in a previous post, they usually pick up reading material that lacks depth.

When introducing my course on the first day, I tell the students not to treat the novels and stories as separate entities from ourselves – in order to understand and empathize, we have to engage. As readers, we have to build a relationship with the characters that we’re reading about. I understand, however, that much of the responsibility lies with the author to create a character that’s engaging in the first place – noted.

When a reader engages with the character (positively or negatively), they will engage in the story. When I think of characters that I’ve connected with, the list is a long one. I have connected with characters that are just like me, characters that are unlike me (but I can empathize with their situation), and characters who are the complete opposite of me, which (in and of itself) is intriguing.

Sadly, it wasn’t until grade 12 where I was forced to read, which has now become one of my favourite novels, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany – a daunting 500+ page read. It was in that same year that I was also forced to read Life of Pi (Martel) for an independent study unit. Though the characters of both novels were not like me in many ways, I found their situations fascinating and I knew I could build a relationship out of that.

A Prayer for Owen Meany had me hooked from the first line:

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” (Irving, 1).

That first line, in my opinion, is one of the most prolific openings to a novel I have ever encountered. In one simple line, I am introduced to two characters and a concept. One of the characters (Owen Meany) is small, has a wrecked voice, has killed the narrator’s mother, and developed the narrator into a Christian – somehow. The other character will narrate, had his mother killed by Owen, and is now presently a Christian. The concept: “Instrument.” More than anything, I wanted to know what kind of relationship Owen and (who we later meet as) John Wheelwright had where Owen could simultaneously (seemingly) kill John’s mother, but also turn John into a Christian…

Characters will often not be a mirror image to ourselves, nor would we find ourselves in their situation, but as readers we’ll often find positive or negative qualities in their personality or situation that allow us to engage. My students don’t necessarily have to agree with the characters or even like them, but to feel something for them is all a part of engaging.

Cellphones in the Classroom

Posted: October 28, 2013 in Education, Humanity

Cell-phone-pic-2

In the world of education, a popular topic is technology. To stay ahead of the ever-changing face of education, teachers are constantly bombarded with a variety of technological tools. For instance, there are Smart Boards, which are interactive whiteboards; there are Clickers, which allow students to give answers anonymously; there are iPads; there are a myriad of education apps (for the iPad); there are, of course, the latest Apple laptops; and most recently, a Juno machine – this is a multi-functioning portable speaker system that can amplify sound, mic teachers, and record lessons.

My school is fortunate enough to have all of the aforementioned devices for use at any time by any teacher.

Video lessons are becoming popular now – I have a colleague with his own YouTube account of math lessons. I have another colleague who uses Skype, quite often, to connect his students to a variety of engaging speakers. I, myself, even created an interactive textbook (through an Apple app) for my grade 10 course. This is exactly what it sounds like – an entirely downloadable textbook filled with handouts, assignments, movies, audio files, and pictures built directly into it.

Teachers, these days, are no strangers to technology.

So, I am often asked by my non-teacher friends and family members: “Do your students bring their cellphones to class?”

They do.

Cellphones in the classroom is often a great debate and there are usually three sides: 1. Do not allow students to bring them and police this closely, 2. Allow students to bring them and if they distract themselves, that’s their issue, and 3. Allow students to bring them, but ensure they understand that they are not allowed to use them during class time. If they do, enforce a consequence.

I will say, immediately, that I will never take side 1 simply because I am not a babysitter or policeman – my job is to teach English literature. Moreover, these students are now at an age where they need to police their own behaviour. So…I am torn between side 2 and 3.

Side 2 is great because it can be a tangible reason as to why a student is not doing so well in my course. I can also teach freely without having to worry about doling out a consequence. Finally, it gives the freedom to the students to make the decision for themselves on whether or not to put it away. This is usually the basket where I put my eggs.

Side 3, however, allows me to teach a valuable life lesson on manners. The bottom line is that whether I am speaking or a student is speaking, it is rude to blatantly use your phone – this is disrespectful and a social faux pas. If someone were speaking to you face-to-face, would you take out your phone and start texting in that moment? Probably not. So why is this behaviour acceptable in the classroom? The students, I can guarantee, do not see this as rude.

Simply allowing the students to have it in their possession during class is the compromise and many students take advantage of this courtesy.

So, side 2 allows me to ignore the behaviour (as negative as that sounds) and side 3 allows me to attempt to correct the behaviour. I just worry that side 3 is one of those battles against technology that one simply cannot win. We have become so obsessed with technology that it has become an essential part of our lives that we don’t even want to attempt to function without it – even for an 80-minute class.

It now becomes a respect issue and it forces teachers to now teach technological-etiquette.

Of-Mice-and-Men-bookcover2       versus       Twilight-Book-Covers       

I try my best to make my students understand every single decision of mine throughout the term. I try and make them understand why tests are essential, the functionality of academic essays, and why we read what we read. More on this in a moment…

At every parent/teacher interview (my school calls them Learning Dialogues), at least half of the parents or guardians comment on my choice of literature – many of them will say (and I quote): “I remember reading this when was in high school.” Most of the time this is said with excitement and a hint of nostalgia, but sometimes it is said with undertones of displeasure, as if they are wondering why I couldn’t pick novels a little more contemporary. Here is why:

Like I said, I try and make my students understand why (and how) the novels on our course are carefully selected. On the first day of classes, I teach my students the difference between ‘literature with a capital L‘ and ‘literature with a lowercase l‘. Literature with a capital L are works of great literature – the classics. This type of literature has many levels that can be penetrated by varying levels of readers. Literature with a lowercase l are pieces meant only to entertain – newspapers, comics, autobiographies, and other pieces with surface-level information. This type requires minimal thinking and minimal effort on the part of the reader, which is often why we are drawn to them.

So, why don’t the novels change over the years? Simply because they are the classics! There is a reason (or many reasons) why they have stood the test of time and continue to be studied year-after-year. Trading off a classic for a more contemporary novel simply because it’s newer is not a good enough reason for me to make the switch.

For instance, the theme of my grade 10 course is: Seeking Justice in a Fallen World. Is there a more contemporary novel that will not only tackle the theme well, but also have the students think as deeply as, say, Lord of the Flies? Probably not. What about as deep as Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men? Nope. So why change? Now, I am open to suggestions and always willing to try something new, so I am not entirely hung up on the classics, but I can make a strong case for the ones I’ve selected. I have yet to come across a newer novel that will hit the theme of the course, allow room for students to think deeply, and also keep the academic standards high. Until I can find other novels that hit the aforementioned areas, I will stick with the classics.

I want students to understand why they are forced to read these novels. I also want students to read a novel that they wouldn’t normally pick up in a Chapters Bookstore. There are bigger implications here – students are picking up books from the Twilight series, Hunger Games series (though there are some interesting themes present there), Harry Potter series, Lord of the Rings series, and (dare I mention) the Fifty Shades of Grey series. To many students, they mistake these pieces for great literature and I would like to set them straight.

In my course, there is a drastic difference between literature with a capital and its counterpart and my students will understand and see the difference.

Great literature is timeless, significant, and requires great concentration and thought.

“Great literature will have three elements: an entertaining plot, a theme anyone can understand, and a deeper meaning that someone like you and I would study.” – Glen Hammond (my mentor and colleague)

Below the Surface

Posted: October 21, 2013 in Education, Literature

berengaria                   Eleanor_of_castile

Berengaria of Navarre (left)                         Eleanor of Castile (right)

In teaching my students to read for information “below the surface,” the story of Berengaria of Navarre and Eleanor of Castile comes to mind. In Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Simon tells Jack (who has been wounded by a boar) to suck on his wound “Like Berengaria.” (Golding, 124). Most readers would continue to read on realizing they have no idea who she is while academic students are taught to do the research in order to get “below the surface.” In other words, not understanding the reference is no reason to ignore it…

Upon further research, readers will find that Berengaria (b. 1165 approx) has nothing to do with the sucking of a wound at all. In fact, Simon confuses this historical woman with Eleanor of Castile…

Eleanor of Castile (b. 1241) was the wife of Edward I of England (“Longshanks”) and she is widely known for the story of how she saved her husband’s life. During the Crusades, Edward I is wounded in battle by a dagger thought to have a poisoned tip. Eleanor is said to have sucked on his wound, effectively saving his life at the risk of her own… She can be compared to the character of Ralph (Lord of the Flies) – doing whatever he can to ensure the safety and well-being of the boys.

So, who is Berengaria of Navarre? She was the wife of Richard I of England who is thought, by many historians, to be homosexual. This is illustrated by how he treated Berengaria: i.e. Their separate travels, his focus on his kingdom rather than on her, and the fact that their marriage may never have even been consummated. Despite the fact that he may have been a homosexual, Berengaria married him anyway. This led historians to believe that Berengaria may have married Richard I for more political reasons than romantic. She is comparable to Jack (Lord of the Flies) – who will do anything just to have more power.

So, why did Golding purposely make Simon confuse these two women? He did so for us to research BOTH women and see how they can relate to his novel. Clever.

Those that continue to read on will miss these types of “below the surface” information from the classics and the specific literary decisions made by the authors. This is how we turn regular readers into academic readers.

In the beginning…

Posted: October 20, 2013 in Education, Humanity, Literature

photo

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (NIV Gen 1:1). Starting from the beginning seems like a great place to start. Even John wrote that, “In the beginning was the WORD, and the WORD was with God, and the WORD was God.” (NIV John 1:1).  This is my starting point with my students – I teach at a Christian high school. I tell my students that after Jesus gave the Parable of the Sower, His disciples blatantly asked why He speaks in parables (a story told to illustrate a moral). In other words, Jesus, just tell us what you mean…

Jesus replied, “Though seeing they do not see, and though hearing, they do not hear or understand…They hardly hear with their ears and they close their eyes.” (NIV Matthew 13:13-15). In my interpretation, Jesus is remarking that some may understand His message while others will turn away and choose not to listen. Moreover, that His morals are illustrated much more effectively by using narrations rather than simply conveying the message bluntly.

And so…should it really take John Irving over 500 pages to convey his message that God works through us in mysterious ways, as he writes A Prayer for Owen Meany? Probably. The story, itself, is a necessary medium to attain the final goal.

I try to impress upon my students that in the world of academia, their eyes and ears are blessed, much like the eyes and ears of Jesus’ disciples. Therefore, we are given a special opportunity to connect with literature in a way that very few people will.