bookpost: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson

I took my kids to a local library with a large English section and picked this off the shelf to occupy myself as my kids read and explored. I was quickly hooked. The novel follows the life of a slave who is the subject of an experiment by eccentric philosophers in 1770s Boston. Anderson builds his story through a series of revelations, effectively mirroring the growing awareness of the protagonist. It captures the enthusiasm of the Enlightenment, the disaster of slavery and some of the moral ambiguity of the American Revolution. It's a great read, although the middle section, made up of letters from a soldier, became a little tedious and I longed to return to the voice of Octavian himself. I look forward to checking out the second volume.


bookpost: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

I'm not a huge fan of science fiction. I picked this up at a book sale because I know it's a seminal novel within the genre and because I knew I would be lecturing on Blade Runner this winter at the Film Archive. I was ready for a futuristic world where a bounty hunter tries to kill of renegade androids and has mixed feelings about it; what I was not expecting and really enjoyed was the cultural context created for the novel, with Mercerism and the obsession with owning an animal. (It certainly explains a thing or two about the film.) I have to say I didn't love the plotting -- it drags in places and the ending is so ambiguous I couldn't quite sort it out. On the other hand, it offers the kind of social criticism all of the best dystopias offer (although this doesn't qualify as one) and the characterization is quite rich, much more so than BR, with which it was impossible not to compare. I really enjoyed it and I would like to read more of his work.


Mrs Dalloway, student interest and feminism

Several years ago, I taught Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway to my IB Diploma Higher Level English class on a whim. We had just finished TS Eliot, which they found challenging but rewarding, and I thought it would be interesting to head in the same direction with a novel. It was not an easy process. They found the style and content off-putting and the students were hostile. As we went through the reading and I gave them some concepts to anchor their reading, it got better, and the necessity of preparing for oral commentaries overtook them well enough, but I thought I would not teach it again.

But then I got a note from a student at graduation. She was a good student, but not a great one, having taken Higher Level A1 English because she needed the Higher level in something. Here is the relevant section:
I'm so glad you gave us Mrs Dalloway. I can't stop thinking about it. The ideas there are amazing. I feel like I see something now that I couldn't see before and nobody else sees, like I see how the world really works and how I can live. I feel like reading that book has been the most important thing that's happened to me.

So I decided to stick with it. And each year, most of my HL students hate it in the beginning and embrace by the end.

I've read a lot about how education should allow students to explore their passions, advocating for student-choice reading lists for instance. I can see the attraction, and I understand the argument. At the same time, the interests and passions of students are limited by their own experience and by the natural conservatism of most teenagers. If we allow students to focus on their own interests and never push them to explore other ideas and texts, we end up isolating them in their own prejudices and contexts. Not a single student ever would choose Mrs Dalloway, a stream of consciousness novel about a middle-aged woman having a party in 1923 London. And yet so many of the students who have endured the novel have broadened their perspectives and been introduced to ideas they had never considered. That is an essential element of learning that I cannot see abandoning.

Even so, I was not excited about doing Mrs D this year. My Higher Level class consists of six boys and one girl, an unusual reversal of the usual ratio. I've taught most of these boys since grade 9, and I know that they glaze over every time gender issues come up. But then I thought, these are very clever young men who will go off to do amazing things: they need to come to terms with feminism, not just laughing it off as someone else's issue. They should learn the vocabulary and be able to wade into the issues with some clarity. They may not become feminists because they read the novel, but they should be required to take the ideas seriously, even if it is against their interests and passions.


English literature anthologies

Someone on Twitter had asked for some recommendations, and I realized this would not work in 140 characters. We tend to use lots of smaller collections that we can dip in and out of rather than a larger, more expensive reader that will dictate our curriculum. So here's what I use:


Generally, I put together my own anthologies of poetry for students to use from online sources. But we have a few that I use from time to time:

Perrine's Sound and Sense

Perrine's Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry (9th Edition)

This is college level with a wide range of poems and detailed descriptions of techniques and methods of reading and analyzing poetry. I use it mostly with MYP5 and Diploma students to review techniques.

Poems from the Past (Cambridge School Anthologies)

Poems from the Past (Cambridge School Anthologies)

I have a colleague who uses this with MYP 1-2. It's quite traditional but covers the techniques well and selects accessible poems from before the 20th century.

Poems 2 (New Longman Literature 14-18)

Poems 2 thumbnail

I really like this collection and I use it all the time for individual poems.

short fiction

Again, I have over the years scanned and found copies of stories I like to use, but here are some anthologies:

Working with Short Stories (Cambridge)

Working with Short Stories

Good stories, good activities.

Global Tales (Longman Imprint Books)

Global Tales (Longman Imprint Books)

The questions and activities are not great, but the stories are wonderful and really varied. This was the basis of a MYP3 unit at some point.


The non-fiction anthologies I use most are no longer in print, the Oxford Literature Resources on Autobiography and Reportage. However, the other alternative is Granta:

For older students, these collections are amazing: I have used them with MYP4-5 and A2 Diploma students.

Models for Writers (Bedford / St. Martins)

Models for Writers

Just a fantastic book. It has short essays organized in a way to identify different elements of the writing process. Great essays, good commentary. My companion for the last 18 years.

historical anthology

Fields of Vision: Literature in the English Language (Longman)

If you are wanting a comprehensive study of English language literature, this one is flexible and accessible. I don't use it with the class, but I do as a resource of my own.

That's what I use. Any others?

Anne Frank, the Holocaust and Affective Learning

My MYP2 (grade 7) students have been reading Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, but we didn't talk much about the Holocaust itself until today when they read the afterward. Is that strange? A little background first.

I struggled with an interesting approach to the diary as I remember hating it as a middle school student. My feeling has always been that it is an important book because it existed more than because of its content, kind of like Uncle Tom's Cabin or the poetry of Edmund Spencer. I reread it over the summer, and while I found it compelling, I still wasn't sure what to do with it. I actually planned to drop it from the syllabus, but I had published a reading list at the beginning of the year, and several of the kids asked me about it repeatedly.

I was thinking about it one day, and I thought, what is valuable about this book besides being a historical document? And the answer is the amount of insight and reflection she has about herself and her situation. And then I started thinking about that issue: how much is her and how much is her situation? A lot of what Anne writes is totally typical for a teenage girl, but her situation -- her historical context and her physical reality -- is completely atypical, and the most interesting moments is when these clash. And so I drew a little Venn for myself:

and started reading it again with this in mind, and I found that the diary opened up in a totally different way for me. In my reading, in the beginning of the diary, the two are very separate; by the end, there is little just about Anne and loads in the middle space. When thinking about a guiding question, the issue was not about what the diary says about the Holocaust, but what the diary says about an individual and her context, and to what degree you can separate those out. And so my basic planning looked like this:
Area of Interaction: Environments. How does an environment or a situation determine one's individuality? Can they be separated? If the individual stays in that environment a long time, does that influence grow?

Significant Concept: A person is shaped by her situation.

Unit Question: How does a person's situation affect the way he or she behaves and sees herself?

Summative Assessment: Choose one aspect of Anne's experience: her relationship with parents, with Peter, her identity as a Jew, her education, etc.) and write an explanation of how much that was her and how much it was her situation. Anchored on quotations from the diary, in the form of a bulletin board display.

I know that the concept kind of sucks: it is too broad, and I actually need to teach it once and see how it fleshes out to get the wording better. And the assessment is a little weird right now, but when I set it up it will make more sense.

So I gave them a little introduction to the diary that would help them make sense of the context. (I was on paternity leave when they started, so this was not the best learning on earth, but it did the job.) I also selected passages for us to read just so we could get through it in a few weeks rather than a few months. (I  know that's controversial, but I really, really hated this book at their age.) Those who wanted to read more could, and those who were less interested could get the point.

Anne didn't know much detail about the mechanics of the Nazi's treatment of Jews beyond her own experience, and so it wasn't very important to our study of the diary. And that is why we hadn't talked about the nitty-gritty of the Holocaust more until now, and we only did so because they had buckets of questions: Why did Hitler hate the Jews so much? Why did they move from camp to camp so much? Why did some of them have to labor and others were just killed? and so on.

Now I am fairly well read on the Holocaust, and I have read everything Primo Levi ever wrote, and I taught the rise of Hitler as a part of IB Diploma History a few years ago, so I was able to deal with their questions directly and with detail. And as I was describing the methodology of murder in a death camp, I looked around the room and realized that my twenty twelve year-olds were in various stages of shock. It is historical fact to me, but it was the bursting of a bubble for some of them. Are people really that wicked? Could this thing really have happened? And so I stopped and did a quick 'What I Know / What I Feel' writing task about the content of the discussion, and this allowed us to get a few of their feelings out there and discuss them as a class. It was a good reminder to me that the presentation of new worldviews and perspectives needs some pastoral care along with it.


bookpost: The Age of Absurdity by Michael Foley

I've read three books without posts, so I'll try to catch up in the next few days.

I can't remember why I had this book -- I think it was a gift from a colleague or student. I would never had bought it on my own. By the cover it looks like an Old Crank book, where someone complains about how crappy the world is with its new-fangled whatnots, and so on. And in some ways, it is.

But it is more of an Alain de Botton -style review of philosophy, looking at how thinkers have prescribed a path to happiness and how modern western culture, with its emphasis on consumerism and entitlement, makes it hard to apply those prescriptions:
Here are the concepts that keep turning up in philosophy, religious teaching, literature, psychology and neuroscience: personal responsibility, autonomy, detatchment, understanding, mindfulness, transcendence, acceptance of difficulty, ceaseless striving and constant awareness of mortality. (68)

Foley promotes a lifestyle of contemplation and personal responsibility, at once radical and reactionary, where we turn away from society and embrace silence but at the same time avoid self-absorption or alienation, supported though scientific research and philosophers from Buddha to Nietzsche.While I didn't always agree with him, I found his central argument compelling (as I am a bit of a crank myself), and it did invite me to examine my own life. For example, the chapter 'The Absurdity of Work' made me laugh out loud, but also made me think about my career and how I can achieve autonomy and detachment and still be effective. He had some imminently practical advice:
[S]urrender to the task but not to the taskmaster, become absorbed in the work itself but never absorb the work ethos. (177)

I also loved this:
It is shocking and profoundly regrettable, but, apparently, sales of oranges are falling steadily because people can no longer be bothered to peel them. As soon as I read this I began buying oranges more frequently and eating them with greater pleasure. Now I peel an orange very slowly, deliberately, voluptuously, above all defiantly, as a riposte to an age that demands war without casualties, public services without taxes, rights without obligations, celebrity without achievement, sex without relationship, running shoes without running, coursework without work and sweet grapes without seeds. (112)

As a teacher, I want to offer my students the opportunity to dig into this rich life of contemplation and struggle, to sacrifice the shortcut and the quick answer for transcendence and understanding. We advocate too much for giving the student what they want, not challenging them to learn beyond their own passions, stroking their ids to the extent that they don't move beyond immediate desires. Students want freedom to do what they want, but the greatest happiness comes from discipline and difficulty. As Foley says, 'Freedom is thin' (137). We need more, and this book gives some direction to where we might find it.


Teaching English on 40 hours a week

Teaching as work

When I was single and in my twenties, teaching was a lifestyle rather than a job. I would stay at school for hours after the students left and still take home work, marking student work on the bus and planning while watching tv. I coached, I worked with the drama department, I met students for lunch and coffee, I served on development committees, mostly without getting paid for it.

Two events changed my attitude. The first was moving to Finland and dating my now-wife. Finns have a very different attitude toward work compared to Americans. My wife was a designer for a prestigious interior design firm, and she never brought work home or worked overtime. They don't do that here. She thought it was very odd that I didn't distinguish my work time from my personal time. Realizing my attitude toward teaching was cultural helped me see the opportunity to change it.

A more significant event was the birth of my first sons. Having twins made my home-time precious. I didn't have the time to mark work at home or spend extra hours at school. I needed to streamline my process, be smart about how I spent my time and basically work my contract. Some six years later, now with four boys, those needs have not changed. I can say without equivocation that I can offer an excellent English program to my students on forty hours a week.

Before I get into the details, let me do some rebuttal:

'How can you limit your efforts in helping your students learn? Isn't learning more than a 40 hour a week process?' etc.

Yes it is, and I hope my students will learn beyond the classroom, and I can structure my class to encourage them to do so. However, I need to learn independently of my students. Too many teachers only learn about what they teach, not expanding or broadening out. I want and need the time to explore the margins of my own subject and other subjects altogether.

More importantly, my children have learning to do. One of my six year-olds is currently fascinated by the planets, so I want to spend an hour with him constructing his own guide to the planets. My other six year-old is working on a comic book about his toy dog, and I want to help him work that out. None of this is homework: it's their own curiosity. My three year-old wants to read and read and read with me, and that is crucial. That's how I will spend my afternoons and evenings, not putting in ten hour work days.

'If everybody just worked their contract, would the students get what they need?'

I think they would: my students like my classes, and they leave prepared for whatever they are doing next. I regularly get emails from university students telling how well prepared they are for college-level writing, and many correspond with me about their interests in literature, culture and language more generally.

But let's suppose they are missing out on something. That means that the school system is failing to provide the resources necessary for students to learn effectively and demands that the teachers to make up the difference. I think this is a primary model of education in America, and most teachers enable the system by working for free. It undermines the professional status of the teacher, and it maintains the under-resourced system. If we keep working beyond our contract, it will never change. If we work beyond our contracts, we are our own scabs.

What do I do?

Planning ahead is crucial, and I do a lot of planning in the summer holidays, laying out the school year by units and identifying how I will assess what with each unit. I change that as I go, but having a plan up front allows me to be flexible in a meaningful way.

The biggest use of time for an English teacher is the assessment of student work, and so the biggest issue has to be streamlining and reducing the amount of work I assess outside of class. The homework I give consists almost entirely of reading and finishing summative assessment tasks, like essays or other text productions. For the reading, I can do quick in-class quizzes that take me five minutes to check, not for a grade, but to help students (and parents) see the connection between doing the reading and completing the assignments.

Of the formative assessment my students do, very little of it is assessed outside of class. Instead, that work, mostly done in class, builds skills necessary to the summative assessment task and usually involves part of the process of that assessment task. Because the work is being done in class, I can do over-the-shoulder assessments. Usually, though, I am looking at self and peer assessments of that formative work, still in class. Students don't always see that this formative work is necessary, but they quickly learn that they need to apply themselves on the in-class 'unit work' to be able to succeed with the 'end of unit work'.

Over the years, I have built up a range of in-class activities that involve  sharing and recording ideas about a text (usually read at home), and those ideas end up in their notebooks or, now that we all have laptops, in a Moodle forum or on a G-doc. Again, the point is for them to create resources for the summative assessment done at the end of the unit rather than for me to create work for its own sake. So, for instance, if I do journaling (and I rarely do), the point is not for me to mark every entry, but for them to create 'rough drafts' of ideas they might polish into a publishable form. The students have an idea of what the assessment will be from the beginning, so they can see the connections themselves.

For the actual summative assessments, whether they be essays or creative pieces or some other sort of performance, we work on the process together in class, and I only assess the final, published version outside of class. I am assessing the product, not the process: we can assess the process and understand how the process led to the product separately and together. We have class time for peer and self assessment of drafts and even one-on-one conferences with me, usually targeting on specific issues that either I or they identify.

When I am assessing that work, the use of specific rubrics that identify key concepts helps me target those skills I want them to learn. The MYP criteria are very helpful for me as there are only three criteria and I need not use all three (although I usually do). I do not use editing marks for language errors, merely identifying some examples of those errors. My goal is not to correct their work -- it is published and it is their work, after all -- but to help them learn how to edit their own work. Using Moodle to collect and return work helps me as well, and I annotate student work using MS Word comments. (Comments on Google Docs aren't good enough.)


Yes, I have smaller classes than most of you; the smaller classes give me time to produce models of work for students and work with them individually more often. Yes, I teach highly motivated students keen to do well for the most part, but the ease of classroom management is met by the demands of their ambition. Yes, I do sometimes work overtime, especially writing comments for reporting periods, parent conferences and whatnot. But I think I have found a way to be a full-time classroom teacher for the full span of my career. Every year I am offered chances to leave the classroom either part-time or full-time, but I love being with the students rather than administrating or facilitating or supervising. If I can manage the workload, I can do what I really love to do and what I'm really good at: teaching.