Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"What's the Matter, my Lord?": How the Common Core favors Serial over Shakespeare.

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?

Hamlet: Between who?

Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.

After I wrote that I'm teaching "Serial" instead of Shakespeare this semester, some people doubted that I understand the superiority of The Bard over Sarah Koenig. Trust me, I understand the superiority. I used to take my classes to Shakespearean plays, and I think Hamlet is the greatest play ever written. Looking around my classroom, I see a student's painting of Hamlet in the graveyard, and I see two Hamlet-inspired skulls. Years ago, I told my senior AP class that a passing grade was contingent on proven mastery of Hamlet -- until the principal called me in and told me I couldn't really do that.

In terms of literary content and quality, "Serial" cannot be compared to Hamlet without making a farce of literary criticism. Hamlet sounds the depths of the human soul, while "Serial" is full of flat characters, potentially meaningless distractions, a total lack of not even a complete product yet. Serial cannot (and explicitly doesn't try to) measure up to Shakespeare's plays.

So if it's not a matter of literary merit, then why am I choosing to teach "Serial" instead of Shakespeare? To put it simply, today's Common Core culture insists that I focus on teaching the communication skills necessary to excel in college and the workplace, sometimes at the expense of teaching the content of the classics. These are not mutually exclusive goals, but it is often easier and more efficient to teach the communication skills with texts that are less than classic. For starters, some of these "less than classic" texts are more likely to fall in my students' zone of proximal development. As one educator put it, "you're spending less time decoding language that is out of their range, and more time working on the skills within their grasp." And the contemporary texts are frequently more accessible, engaging, and relevant to their daily lives.

We skipped Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" for Rembert Browne's "The Front Lines of Ferguson" and other, conflicting perspectives of Ferguson. We eschewed an essay by Benjamin Franklin in favor of an analysis of the podcast that led to Bill Simmons' three-week suspension, and we compared that rant to the more measured, more thoughtful, less slanderous discussion on PTI's podcast. And so on. Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.

First of all, we have standards. They favor method over matter.

Not literary standards. I'm talking about Common Core State Standards. In an explicit "Message from the State Board of Education," the standards "define the general, cross-disciplinary literacy expectations for students in preparation for college and the workforce." For example, one of the standards is Reading 7: "Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats." For all the reasons I listed in an earlier post, Serial provides a useful text to teach almost all of these reading and writing standards, and a perfect medium to teach the listening skills.

None of the standardized tests even hint at "appreciation of classic literature."

None of important tests -- the SBAC, the CAHSEE, the SAT -- have a single question about a specific piece of literature or the facts about a single author or time period. The implicit message from the State Board: in a high school English class, communication skills should be prioritized to the extent that appreciation of classic literature is tertiary, maybe even irrelevant.

The explicit message from local administrators: communication skills should be prioritized over the appreciation of classic literature.  Literally one hour ago, an administrator told me: "I think English teachers got into the profession because they love literature, and so they cling to the story, which isn't ultimately that important. So they don't know Hamlet -- most adults don't. I mean on one hand, they can be learning more about the nature of man and all about the humanities, but on the other hand they could be learning about reading and writing so that they can function in the working world. Obviously we should favor the second case."

In stark contrast, my daughter is going to a private "classical academy" where they publicly criticize the state standards and promise that the students at their school will master the classic literature of the world. My daughter just recited a Shakespearean poem as well as any of my high school juniors do for "Poetry Out Loud." She's four. Will she be able to "function in the working world"? I assume so, but this priority seems tertiary at this school, like literary appreciation is tertiary in the public schools -- not a bad thing of course, but supplementary, almost irrelevant. I think in both cases, there's a presumption that one will happen as the result of the other.

Method over matter: the taxpayers seem to agree.

If there has been any resistance to my post on "I'm teaching Serial instead of Shakespeare," it's been almost entirely from English teachers, which validates the observations of the administrator quoted above. I've heard nothing but support from parents and community members. I think the most vocal supporters of the post are adult professionals who aren't working directly in the schools.

Method over matter: I might agree.

It's definitely my job to teach teens how to write, read, listen, and think critically. I should also encourage them to use these skills at the highest level of complexity (and if that's Shakespeare, then great). I cringe at the idea that "preparing students for the workforce" is my primary job, but after I teach them the communication skills to the best of my ability, the students can choose whatever route they want, right? They can read Shakespeare on their own time. Or the bible. Or John Green. Whatever they want.

Once I get past the skills of writing, reading, listening, and thinking critically, I'm very quickly in an area where I'm choosing the themes and morals for other children of other families. I would love to teach Ecclesiastes as literature, for example, but I think people would freak out. But why is it then okay for me to choose another "dead white guy" to show us how to tame a shrew? Why is it okay for me to lead discussions on what it means to be a hero? Once we comprehend that Hamlet feels it's sometimes courageous to commit suicide, is it my job to continue this discussion? Most people seem to think no, it's not my job, and they might be right.

I mentioned that my daughter is attending a "classical academy," but I'm not sure she's going to stay there. If I know that the public schools will teach her the state standards to the best of their professional ability, she can read Pride and Prejudice with me and her mother.

If our society had different values, I would think differently.

Sometimes I hear somebody argue that Shakespeare holds valuable "cultural currency" -- that the students should know his plays so that they can participate in adult life with educated people. But I work with relatively well-educated people -- most of them haven't read Hamlet and fewer of them remember it well enough to want to talk about it. If I want my boys and girls becoming social men and women, then there are other texts they should be exposed to.

Put it this way, if our society read about, wrote about, listened to arguments about, and thought critically about Shakespearean characters even 1% as much as we do about Adnan and Jay, Ray Rice, or the situation in Ferguson, I would feel differently about what I'm teaching in class. But I play poker every week with a professor of English Literature, and we don't talk about Ishmael or Jay Gatsby -- we talk about Adnan and Jay. And what's the matter with that?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Simple Guide to Teaching "Serial" in high school

Last week, I wrote about why I'm choosing to use "Serial" as the primary text instead of Shakespeare in my high school English class. I also wrote way too much about how easy it is to use this "Serial" to teach the state standards (and which standards in particular).

But since then, many people have asked how we're using "Serial" in the classroom, and (shocking!) they didn't want to wade through my catalog of CC anchor standards. So here's a more user-friendly summary of what the 11th graders have been doing for the past month in regards to the podcast.

1. I introduced the podcast just like Sarah Koenig did -- with a mind-experiment based on Adnan's experience.

I have linked to a basic handout right here, but it's basically asking the same questions our narrator did. Could the students remember class three days ago, or their afternoon from six weeks ago?

This activity was fun, it set a positive tone, and it verified one of our narrator's first claims. For what it's worth, fewer than half of the students could elaborate on the details of class from a few days ago, and even fewer could mention anything from a week previous.  In fact, I accidentally picked a class period that had a fire drill in the middle of it, and only 3 of the 32 students wrote "fire drill" somewhere in their description.  A couple students surprised me by remembering what they did exactly six weeks earlier (or so they say) for the same reason Sarah mentioned -- something interesting happened on that exact date, like a birthday party or something.

Standards addressed: Writing narratives, sequencing events, using details, etc. (W 3)

2. The first episode provided a perfect lesson in form and structure

"Serial" would not have taken off as a pop sensation if it weren't for the classic opening chapter. When prompted, my 11th graders can recognize the form and the purpose: the mysterious phone call from prison (the hook), the exciting situation (to keep our attention), the introduction of the narrator and corresponding credentials (to establish a reliable narrator), the fun interviews with people who laugh out loud and open up to her (to establish that our narrator is friendly and a good person, and to lighten the mood after presentation of a dark topic), and so on.  The students had a difficult time remembering all the elements on their own, but I let them try, and then they got in groups to synthesize their memories. After that, we charted the entire episode on the whiteboard.

Not only could they move from recognition of structural elements to actual formal analysis, they were excited to imagine telling their own story using a similar "template" (which would be a great assignment).

Standards addressed: Analysis of a text's structure and order (R 5) and word choice (R 4)

3. More on Episode 1: Stories within stories. So many points of view. So many purposes.

I'm linking to my rudimentary handout here, but any decent English teacher can use the various stories in the first episode to inspire any number of discussions, projects, or assignments. They can analyze the different points of view and the corresponding story that goes with each one (including the narrator's!). The conversations on "purpose," which are usually a grind, we're so fruitful. And finally, teaching the students to recognize what's not being said is usually nearly impossible (what is Shakespeare not saying in Act 1? The students don't really know or care), but in this case it's completely natural to ask about the "blank spots" in some of these narratives (especially the narrator's!)

Standards addressed: Point of view, purpose, how it shapes text (R 6) and contrasting one medium with another (R 6).

4. Evaluating the evidence.

We did this with the political debates a couple years ago, but holy cow, it is way easier with "Serial."

I don't think I need to explain how this not only possible to "evaluate truthfulness" within this story, but it's the primary reason why people are addicted to their Thursday fix.  Here's a link to my really simple handout.

Standards addressed: Identifying arguments, evaluating reasoning, and evaluating relevance, truthfulness, and sufficiency of evidence (R 8).

5. Using clues to supplement the story (combining visual information with our reading)

Serial's website provides plenty of fun clues, but English teachers are always trying to encourage their students to find their own primary sources. My school is also encouraging us to teach the kids "21st century skills" and our ESLR's include "using technology." So we went beyond the website a little, and used Google maps (the "street view" in particular) and drove the exact route that Jay drove (allegedly) and Sarah drove (literally). We could see an aerial view of the buses that block the school's exit, we "drove" to Best Buy, and the students themselves noticed that the trees don't cover the Best Buy parking lot very much, at least not in January. We also learned how to get a screen shot from "Street View" onto this blog. That might sound incidental, but it's not at Morro Bay high school.

Standards addressed: Synthesizing and including visual information, multiple sources, and different media (R 7).

6. Talking about typical high school behavior.

We had a rich and entertaining discussion about what my students think is normal or "sketchy" behavior, and I'm sure any English teacher could facilitate similar discussions. After the kids identified what they thought might seem suspicious, they used their speaking and listening skills to poll their classmates; and then they used their "skills across the curriculum" to come up with class averages and show them on a spreadsheet. They asked each other how crazy a behavior seemed (from 1-10), and how many high school students they knew who would engage in similar behavior.  This inspired a separate blog post, but I'll include the chart here:

"Crazy score"# of kids similar kids we knowOther notes
Called gf "devil"4.32.9
Calling ex at 12:3043.7Over half up at midnight; average of 11:30
Crashing girls night5.42.1
Multiple gf's/towns3.77.9
Doing big favor for ex3.73.1
Using "kill" in convo4.45.7
Not paging Hae63.3
Awk convo with Sarah4.92.4
Parents crashing dance6.51.5including football games, movies
Mr. S70.3
Buying fancy jacket for ex4.40.8rare, not crazy
Shifting romantic priorities2.98.5
Doodling names 100+6.52.2
Aiding crime w/o telling cops7.43.7"Y'all know 3 people who are a 7?" "Yes"

Standards addressed: Various listening and speaking standards, including cooperative soft skills and problem solving.

7. Now it's time for my students to become lawyers

They've spent almost a month now as critical, but nevertheless semi-passive, readers. Now as they're coming up on Episode 5 and 6, I'm requiring them to take stands.  If they think Adnan is innocent (one group has #freeadnan on their group nametag), now is the time to assert that they would actually let Adnan out of jail, and then convince us why.  I'll write more about this as it happens but I think it's safe to say...

Standards addressed: Almost all of the writing standards, and some of the listening/speaking standards.

8. Other Notes

There is occasional bad language (could the nice people at Serial publish an edited teen-friendly version?) but it's not worse than Catcher in the Rye or Shakespeare (if you read carefully). In any case, I get a couple episodes ahead of them, and write down the moments of bad language and then mute it just in case.

There are also some scenes that Sarah calls "disturbing" but again, not any more disturbing than all the death we read about in more orthodox literature.

I've read a lot recently, however, that this is different because the disturbing scenes are concerning corpses of a real person, not Hamlet, and I do take this seriously. We talk about that in class, which is a nice teachable moment, but also -- and this might be startling -- I'm not sure I'm going to finish the story as a class.  It's another reason I'm a couple episodes ahead of them.

Likewise, there are articles about how there may not be a satisfying conclusion because this is not a fictional story. Personally, I am in the camp of people who feel that there are enough literary aspects to this story that there better be a real conclusion, but we'll see.  Worst case scenario, this will inspire us to consider the concepts of genre and modern media, and evaluate the form of the text.

9. Update on Lesson Plans!

It took me about 40 hours (seriously) to get them looking good, but there are ten lessons available for just the first episode (which is the best one).  I'm going to publish episodes 2-4 today at the same site. I'm asking for a little bit of money because they are literally swallowing up my entire Winter Break, but if you have any questions or comments, please leave a comment here, or email me at

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Reflections on "Plan A": My personal pedagogy of belonging

Note: This year in my 11th grade English class, I am experimenting with "Plan A": If every student cooperates instead of competes, gives full effort every day, and takes responsibility for their own learning, then everyone is promised an A.  I'm not doing this to be nice; I'm doing it because I think it will help student learning.  For more details about Plan A, see the first blog post.

In case you missed it, I used to teach and coach with a competition-based pedagogy which worked very well with the AP students and elite athletes at SLO High. But when I transferred to Morro Bay to teach "college prep" English, my style of coaching and teaching completely backfired in the face of an entirely different culture. Thus, I resigned as head coach of the basketball team, and instituted "Plan A" in my classroom -- where I promise every student an A if they all cooperate without exception.

These are my reflections after two months. I hope they aren't too random.

Just because everyone gets an A, it doesn't mean we're anarchists. At the center of "Plan A" is a very common core.

Every worthy construction has a strong bedrock, and in our case it's called The Checklist, a student-friendly, scaffolded rubric of the ELA anchor standards. The example below is just the first page, and it shows a fictional illustration of how it works. It's pretty simple. They do all their assignments in their journal (you could call it a portfolio), and then within reason, they cite every time they exemplify one of the state standards, and put the corresponding page number on their checklist.

The Checklist
Controlling and improving my level of communication.

Reading Standard 1: Read what text says explicitly; cite evidence; draw conclusions

I can...
I wrote it.
“I got this.”
I can teach this.
1. Show comprehension (paraphrase or summary) of what the text is actually saying.
1, 3, 5, 8
6, 13, 18,

18, 24
2. Point at (and cite) direct evidence (quotes) that leads to explicit meaning.
2, 4, 9
3, 10, 19
3. Infer conclusions based on what’s above.
2, 4, 10
10, 11, 19
4. Show where the text leaves matters uncertain.

They have their checklists of all twenty anchor standards on their desks every day, at all times.  They have expressed satisfaction that they understand the explicit goals of the class, and it guides them on their independent projects.

The Checklist helps me more than the students.

I am constantly referring to The Checklist to make sure my lesson lesson is grounded in the CCSS. And conversely, when I'm trying to think of new lesson plans, I look at The Checklist and immediately come up with several ideas.

It's sometimes hard to teach without using grades as a threat or bribe.  That's a good thing.

It is still a habit of mine to say things like "if you don't take notes on this, you'll fail the quiz" or "you won't get an A on the paper unless it includes a Works Cited page." It's much more difficult to convince the students to use MLA format for the intrinsic value.  But I like the challenge. Whenever I feel a tendency to lean on grades as an end purpose, it's a sign that I should check what I'm doing. I need to explicitly tell the students why the assignment is important to their lives, and if I can't do that, I should probably reconsider the value of my lesson.

Yes, with an A promised to them, some kids are coasting.

But those kids are always coasting.  I think they're coasting less now, but I can verify that with assessment results soon. Yes, their grades are inflated, but if their learning is verifiably improved, how much do I care? That's a real question, by the way. I do care, but I'm not sure how much.

Yes, the class is more successfully cooperating as a result.

A simple example: I put the desks in a circle, and I challenged the class to participate in a classroom discussion in which everyone participated appropriately or I would revoke "Plan A." On their own, they had to elect some officers (a moderator, a sheriff, etc.) and then each student had to validate somebody's else comment by name, and then offer their own contribution.  Then all I did was occasionally offer just a little bit of advice or guidance in stress-free environment. It was better than any classroom discussion we had last year, and it was really easy.

I'm not sure if the individual writing is sufficiently improving.

But it might be. I get test results soon, and I'm also going to do a thorough audit of their checklists in the upcoming week.  I just graded a batch of common assessments, though, and so far, so good.

One time, a sub-group of slackers was formed.  I scattered them. And then the class combined forces to save them.

So, I gave the class the option of six different topics to specialize in, so that they could join groups of common interest.  To "qualify" for their favorite group, they were asked to answer a simple review question, and then "apply" for that group (if they wanted to specialize in logic, they needed to write a syllogism, for example). There were five students who intentionally failed the application process, so I put them all in the same group, one which nobody else had applied for.  This group, now unified, did nothing. I worked and worked with them, but nothing.  When it came time to present to the class, they were basically silent. In a spiteful, immature way, I considered revoking "Plan A" for this class. I thought about directing the peer pressure of the other five groups on this particular one. But this class was supposed to be cooperative and helpful, not full of coercion or vengeance.

This was what I came up with. The next day, I told them to get into five groups that had at least one of each kind of specialist -- it was a fun little problem for them to solve.  Then I made the five slackers the "captains" of their new group. I told them if they wanted "Plan A" to continue, each group needed to prepare their captains for an assessment/quiz/contest on all six topics. To be honest, those slacker/captains did not become experts in all six topics, but I've never seen them learn as much in one class.  And it was awesome to watch the other students become teachers.

I didn't feel good calling out these slackers by name, and it went against the spirit of the class to threaten them with an assessment. But I justified it as one step back to go three steps forward. In a culture where it's paramount to "belong," it was a significant punishment when they were individualized, called out by name, and separated from their friends. I have very mixed emotions admitting this, but one of the "captains" actually left the class in tears when I first announced the new groups/captains. But she came back, we had a great talk, her new group was welcoming and helpful, and her attitude towards class has been exemplary ever since.

There is an authentic environment of belonging.

There is relatively little anxiety about individual learning disabilities, struggles with English, or any other handicap.  Everyone works at their own appropriate pace, in the least constrictive way imaginable.  I've never had friendlier, more cooperative classes.  The previous example was one of the

There are a lot of technical advantages.

I'm trying to make my blog post shorter, so I'm going to stop here, but I'll soon write about how easy and natural it is to make accommodations for individual students in the environment of "Plan A." It also easy to write "lesson plans" for other teachers, replace texts that are too heavy or controversial for some students, and work through learning disabilities and/or anxiety issues.  And finally, now that I'm not grading 150 teacher-centered assessments all the time, I am free for more authentic lesson planning, relevant professional development, and some self-reflection (like this blog).

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

How to Lose: Failing with a Pedagogy of Competition

Note: This year in my 11th grade English class, I am experimenting with "Plan A": If every student cooperates instead of competes, gives full effort every day, and takes responsibility for their own learning, then everyone is promised an A. I'm not doing this to be nice; I'm doing it because I think it will help student learning. For more details about Plan A, see the first blog post.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the competitive atmosphere I fostered when I coached baseball and taught AP English at SLO High. In an nutshell, there were hundreds of mini-competitions, awards, punishments, scoldings, celebrations, champions, and difficult challenges. Each assistant coach "bet a cheeseburger" on their own practice team at least four times a week. The teams and classes were not only a lot of fun, but we won several league championships, several players went on to play in college and/or professionally, and many of my students went to the university of their choice (and would tell me the English classes at their college were much easier than mine). I felt really good about myself.

Then I transferred to Morro Bay High to coach their varsity boys basketball team. The team had just won two straight league championships, but due to all the graduating players, they said I might be lucky to win three or four games in my first season. I was naturally excited by the challenge and fully confident that I would bring the team back to a championship calibre within two or three years. We did in fact win ten games in my first season, but we went 2-24 in my second season, and I subsequently resigned before the whole program completely fell apart.

Meanwhile, I taught some "college prep" classes that were even more disastrous than the team. Certainly there were some individual lessons that bombed, but I had one entire class where over half the students failed and we had all pretty much given up with three weeks to go in the school year.

You might be thinking, what was this psycho-teacher doing? Exactly the same things I was doing at SLO HIgh. If anything, since my reputation hadn't been established at this new school, I was more careful with everyone's feelings. I was humbled; I monitored, adjusted, scaffolded, and differentiated. Some experiments led to minor improvements, but still -- my best lessons were bombing, student learning was minimal, and we kept losing basketball games. I occasionally doubled down on my disciplinary ways (just to see if I wasn't being tough enough), which almost always backfired; mostly, I asked the students/players themselves what I could do to help them.

No seriously, you might be asking, can you be honest and tell us what you were doing wrong? Yes, but I'll stick with basketball since it's more dramatic. I told our star he needed to bend his knees more on defense, he talked back, and so I put in a sub; the team didn't seem to like this. Another player, after a few warnings about pouting, snubbed our assistant coach while coming back to the bench; I told him he didn't have to be here, so he left and sat the crowd; at halftime I told him return to the bench or give me his uniform permanently, and he returned to the bench -- barely. One player missed a league game to go to Hawaii, so I benched him the first game back. I once called it "embarrassing" when a player just stood there and didn't run back on defense, and his parents were furious and followed me from the locker room to the bus after the game, lecturing me then entire way. I repeatedly (and nicely) asked the seniors to play in some summer basketball games with the team, and they didn't appreciate the "pressure." I recorded player stats and set up certain benchmarks during the offseason to qualify for certain types of playing time (for example, you had to make a certain percentage of three-pointers before you could shoot in a game); the returning seniors did not appreciate this.

More baffling to me, even when I had completely shifted from "mostly positive" to "completely positive," the players and parents were still observably rattled. In fact, they were much more vocally upset when I thanked two specific parents for earning $3,000 with their volunteering efforts, when I got excited about what I considered an all-star starting lineup, and when I was enthusiastic about a low-post offense that revolved around our young 7-foot center that nobody in the league could measure up to -- they called this "favoritism."

The wheels starting coming off in the first week of our second season. A popular senior told me that he couldn't make it to our game because he had to go to a "mandatory" football award banquet. Note that no coach I have ever talked with has ever heard of a player making this choice. I was really nice with him, and we talked for about 15 minutes, and I explained to him how hard his teammates had worked while he was playing football, I talked about leading by example, and I ultimately told him that we expected him to choose the game over the banquet unless he didn't want to play basketball this season. If I wanted to save the season, this was probably the biggest mistake of my career. He went to the banquet, and then quit the team (very respectfully) the next day. One of his friends (a star on the team) quit an hour later (very respectfully). I asked if he wanted to talk about anything, and he said no. Another starter quit the next day (the same pouter I mentioned previously); he said he didn't like how I treated the player who wanted to go to the banquet. Two days later, another senior quit, citing the same reason. And finally, our star center got a 59% in an art class, which kept him from being academically eligible.

I was deflated, but I took it for granted that the younger players would happily step up (especially the ones who took offense at not being in that starting lineup I was touting) and we would go through another rebuilding year. But when it came time to leave town for a tournament, five different players suddenly couldn't go "because of school" (they would have to miss a day of school). I barely scraped together a team of six players -- two were from the JV team and one from the freshman team).

Later on in the regular season, there were tears after we played great and almost beat the sixth-place team; there was almost no excitement when we earned two victories -- in fact, one senior who didn't play a lot stormed out and went on a rampage on Twitter. This will be an important clue later.

At the end of the season, the 7-footer (he was about to become a junior) told me very respectfully that he was considering transferring to a prep school on the east coast. He wanted my input. I told him how important he was to our team, and how important he could become to our school and even our community. He had put on 40 pounds over the past year, and was finally becoming a phenomenon. I told him that there was no ceiling to how he could lead us in so many ways, as a player and as a person. He announced his transfer two hours later. A two-time returning starter quit a week later, and another starter quit a week after that. In order to save the program, I resigned soon after that, hoping a new coach could re-kindle, recruit, and rebuild.

So what went wrong? What could I have done differently? I was baffled and beaten. Then I read an article on the Pedagogy of Belonging, and suddenly everything started making sense. Immediately and ever since, I started connecting dots and more and more the whole season made perfect sense. Soon I began to understand why over half my class failed.

The whole article was life-changing for me, but in a nutshell, it points out that, "like it or not, the rapidly changing demographics of U.S. society have shattered traditional sources of belonging," and school is now the central source for relationships and acceptance. It quotes Glasser, who says that hungry students need to eat, and lonely students need friends.

At SLO High, the kids I coached and taught tended to have a very secure family life, with similarly blessed friends, and they all seemed very connected with their church and community in general. The team (or AP class) was something extra for them -- if they succeeded, great; if they failed, nobody cared. The former principal used to laugh, "Nobody gets over a loss quicker than SLO High." More obviously, they really liked to stand out. They felt secure in their central group, and they wanted to stand out as an individual. They dressed to be noticed, and they fought hard for awards and public recognition. But if they didn't, oh well. Life was still good. And most importantly, I'm now realizing, is this becomes the culture -- if you want to look normal, you should try to stand out.

At Morro Bay, the students aren't as fortunate -- one of my players was literally hungry every day. Without that security of belonging, they weren't ready to stand out, even if it was in a positive way. Everyone at the school wears blue hoodies. The two parents didn't like it when I singled them out for praise; none of the players ever liked when I praised them in front of their teammates. Nobody wanted to take big shot, nobody argued with the officials, and if their name was ever in the newspaper, I believe they would purposely lay low in the subsequent game. I noticed at a school-wide academic awards assembly, each recipient looked ashamed, and stood apart from their teacher. The banquet was chosen over the game. Friendships were favored over starting positions. When one guy quit, four guys quit. And when four popular players quit, the central purpose of participating on the team was largely destroyed.

The exceptions seem to prove the rule. I mentioned that we won ten games in the first season. This was mostly on the back of our one senior, who had no friends on the team, who loved scoring 30 points a game, who always took the big shot (even when he was triple-teamed), who set the career record for most technical fouls for arguing with refs, who once took his jersey off after fouling out, and who had a very secure home life with two (wealthy, I think) parents.

Everything I did was based on competition and stratification, and this was (I realize now) in opposition to the culture at Morro Bay. They wanted to belong. All my constructive criticism and individual praise, all my skills tests, this was all antithetical to want they wanted. Team losses made them cry, but wins based on heroic individual efforts didn't mean very much, not even to the individual hero.

I knew what I needed to do as a coach, but I also feared it was too late -- the trust in belonging to a "family of basketball players" (with me as their father) was long gone, and I decided they needed a new leader to bring them back together again. So I resigned.

But my classes -- that was a different story. I get new students every year.

I understood the same lessons could apply to my struggling classes -- they didn't want to stand out at all, even if it was for "good" reasons. They literally didn't want to win the competition. I even let them play Pictionary for one goof-around day and was exasperated when they wouldn't take the game seriously enough to try to win. And if most of the kids weren't doing the homework (or the classwork), nobody wanted to get noticed doing the work. They'd rather get a low grade, if that helps them belong.

On the other hand, they didn't want to fail at something that nobody else was failing at. Thus, I came up with "Plan A." If everyone is getting an A, then everyone wants an A. And if everyone wants an A, then we have a chance to get some learning done.

Next post: What happens when I say "Everyone gets an A, if everyone cooperates." (The experiment is ongoing.)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Best Buy's "private" parking lot in the winter

Since I replaced Shakespeare with "Serial" as a primary text in my English classes, I now listen to it up to six times a week, and I have six different occasions to supplement the podcast with Google Maps on the data projector.  It's pretty cool to use "Street View" and "drive" the same route as Adnan allegedly did on the 13th, and so on, but we've never found anything particularly strange until this morning. Most of my students saw it at the same moment I did.  On most of Google maps, it looks like there is a lot of vegetation giving the Best Buy parking lot plenty of privacy in the back.  And indeed, I think most of the year it probably does. And at night, I'm sure a high school couple could find some intimate space in this lot.  But in the daytime, in January, from Security doesn't look so secure.  This is the "street view" of a very busy street, and as you can tell, there are almost no leaves blocking the view.  In fact, you can see a car in the photo pretty clearly. As I'm sure lots of people have already noted, I'm not saying that you couldn't commit a heinous crime in this parking lot and get away with it -- I'm saying it would take an incredible (and seemingly unnecessary) surplus of courage to drag a dead body into the trunk of a car with this kind of cover.

I think this link will also take you to the street view I'm talking about.

I'm Replacing Shakespeare with "Serial"

As a high school English teacher, I used to spend at least four weeks on Hamlet. On an annual basis, we would happily discuss the potential causes of the protagonist's insanity, the symptoms of depression, the cultural beliefs and norms of Renaissance England, and well...basically the nature of man.  This year, I took a leap and replaced Shakespeare with "Serial," a nonfiction podcast centered around the murder of an American high school girl, the subsequent investigation, and the potentially unjust imprisonment of her ex-boyfriend.

Although I am genuinely worried about how this contemporary story will end, I have no regrets yet. In fact, it's been more fun, more engaging, and more conducive to learning the Common Core's anchor standards in reading and writing than anything written by Shakespeare, Joyce, or anybody else.  By far.

In no particular order, here are some of the reasons:

1. The teacher (me) doesn't know how the story ends.  Whenever I teach a novel for the first time, they believe that they might be answering my questions and solving problems in original ways. Not matter how much I fake it, however, they can tell when I'm teaching Hamlet for the eighth straight year. Teaching "Serial" is even better than teaching a book for the first time -- the story is literally not finished yet, so they know I don't know the answers.

2. The nonfiction "murder mystery" genre makes it more conducive to problem-solving. We want our students to be critically-thinking problem solvers, and Reading Standard 7 specifically asks the students to combine multiple sources to solve a problem or question. "How much should we believe Jay's story?" is an interesting, real-life question that could literally be solved; student engagement with this question is much higher than say, "Should Hamlet listen to his father's ghost?"

3. Serial is hip and fresh.  My students really, really don't care about what a dead critic thinks about Hamlet's sexual feelings for his own mother, but they definitely take notice when women are tweeting about how they're looking for men who have an opinion on Adnan.

4. My students' opinions might actually matter on social networking sites.  Or in my class.  Or in real life. Nobody on the Internet really cares about their thoughts on Hamlet's suicidal tendencies, and after eight years, I frankly don't either (I've pretty much heard them all). But in this case, there's a good chance they can blow my mind by uncovering a clue, and even a (very small) chance that their research could help bring justice to an imprisoned man.

5. The multi-media aspect encourages (requires) the students to synthesize information from a variety of sources.  Yes, I know we can watch Shakespeare on YouTube and we can make models of the Globe Theater, but this does not compare to Serial's collection of documents and photos. Not only does this multi-media aspect really help with the state standards and "21st Century Skills," it's just a good time.  Maps, call logs, Google maps, hand-written's fantastically fun and totally engaging. Today we put the Google Maps "street view" on the big screen and "drove" the exact route that Adnan allegedly took from his school to Best Buy. Creepy, but engaging. Speaking of which...

6. They actually listen to the story. Sorry, but the kids these days are not doing the homework like we dream we did when we were in high school.  Their SparkNotes (on their phones) are in their pockets at all times. Even at the university, my friend (an English prof) says that students are watching the movie on their iPads while he lectures on Much Ado About Nothing. In this case, the students say "Wait, Mr. Godsey. Can you play back that last 10 seconds?" about every ten minutes.

7. It's easier to teach the state standards with "Serial." As I illustrated in an earlier post, not only can I justify the use of “Serial” as a primary text, the podcast actually helps the students learn these fundamental skills more efficiently than most traditional texts, especially longer novels.

8. The state doesn't really care if the students read Shakespeare. I don't know if this is hyperbole or understatement, but it's how I feel right now. "Serial" does not teach anything about iambic pentameter, English history, or the Renaissance, but none of these things are tested on the SBAC, the CAHSEE, the SAT, or any other test they might take outside of my class. Generally speaking, we're being asked to teach the skills rather than the content (which are said to be easily accessible in 2014). More specifically, there is no school-wide, district-wide, or state-mandated test that has a single question about a particular piece of literature. "To be or not to be?" is not a multiple choice question that has any place on a state-mandated test, and nobody seems to care; I'm not even sure I do. As long as I teach students to read well and think critically, they can read Shakespeare on their own time.
             But as a fellow English teacher asked yesterday, "What about the humanities?"  And as my bible group asked two night ago, "What about wisdom?"  I don't know. This will surely be another blog post -- please feel free to contribute comments before I write about that.

In the meantime, it's Thursday.  I'm going home to pour a couple of bowls of cereal for me and my wife, and then we're going to snuggle up and listen to the next episode of "Serial." After all, it's my homework.

Standards-based "Serial"

[Update: It took me about 40 hours (seriously) to get them looking good, but there are ten lessons available for just the first episode (which is the best one).  I'm going to publish episodes 2-4 today at the same site. I'm asking for a little bit of money because the work is literally swallowing up my entire Winter Break, but if you have any questions or comments, please leave a comment here, or email me at]

[Second update: Now that Season 1 is over, lots of people have been asking how the unit went as a whole. It went great! I survey the students too (over 100 of them), and posted the results on the latest post. Check it out if you're interested.]

My 10th and 11th grade English students are listening to the “Serial” podcast, and so far we are all loving it.  They are completely engaged and excited for future episodes, and it’s been very easy (and fun) for me to teach them reading and writing skills throughout the process.  But is my school and district happy about it?  To make sure, I’ve organized a list of ways that “Serial” is teaching us “21st Century Skills” and helping us prepare for state testing.

It turns out, not only can I justify the use of “Serial” as a primary text, the podcast actually helps us learn these fundamental skills more efficiently than most traditional texts, especially longer novels. Thanks especially to the multi-media quality of the story, its contemporary relevance, and the variety of viewpoints both within and outside of the narrative, the students instinctively want to apply our common core fundamentals in a real-life problem-solving way.

I start the unit with an admittedly non-standard hook.  I ask them to write down what we did in class three days ago (who was there, who was absent, etc.), then what they did after school eight days ago, and then what they did after school exactly six weeks ago (like Adnan had to).  It’s extremely fun, and fascinating, and gets us right into the story.  I even had some pairs of students write down all the details of a shared event on their own (including clothing, time frame, and if either person ever left the other one’s sight) and then we compared the stories as if we were cops looking for inconsistencies. 

After that, it was all almost completely standards-based, and amazing easily to do so.

Reading Standard 1:

Showing comprehension of text: This is understanding text at a basic level, and it’s easy (and fun) and natural to do with “Serial” as the text. You can do this with an entire episode as a “text” or you can take a single person’s testimony (like Jay’s) as a “text.”
Citing direct evidence that leads to explicit meaning: Again, this comes naturally when listening to “Serial,” but it’s even easier when you limit “the text” to a single monologue. For example, what evidence is Jay offering that supports what he’s trying to say?
Infering conclusions based on previous evidence: I have never found a better text for getting to this level of this standard. Not only does this come naturally in this context, but it’s a good lesson in keeping them focused – what conclusion can you get from this evidence supplied in this text. (The students often want to make irrelevant claims like “but Jay is a drug dealer” which is a bit of an ad hominem attack).
Show where text leaves matters uncertain: This is usually so hard to teach to students until college (what is Shakespeare not saying??), but now it’s so easy to show them the value in recognizing the negative space of a narrative.  What is Jay leaving out? What is Adnan not saying? Maybe more importantly, what is our narrator leaving out of the story? More simply, what do you really want to ask these characters? Why aren’t they telling us?

Reading Standard 4: Determining connotative meanings, and analyzing their effect.

Analyzing impact of specific diction on meaning and tone: This is admittedly difficult, but no more than usual, and even more pertinent in a contemporary story in which we don’t exactly know where our narrator is coming from (or trying to go).

Reading Standard 5: Analysis of a text’s structure and order

Identify parts of the whole text: This is really fun, easy, and important to do with the first episode.  She starts with a great hook, she introduces herself, she establishes her credentials as a reliable narrator, she gives us a dark setting, she lightens the mood by showing how nice she is while interviewing funny people who obviously like talking with her, and so on.
Explain the relationship of parts to the whole: It doesn’t take much for the students to realize that those interviews humanize the narrator, lighten the mood, and provide info at the right time.  They can do this with each part of the episode.
Chart/diagram an entire text: It takes about 5-10 minutes for them to draw a timeline of the first episode in their journals.  They can do this with friends, and they have fun doing it. The art of storytelling becomes very clear, very quickly.
Make judgments on why the author made these structural decisions: It’s easy to see how we could write our own story using this exact form, and a great time to do a “copy change” and allow the students an hour to write their own narratives following her lead.

Reading Standard 6: Assessing point of view and purpose, and corresponding form.

Identify the point of view and purpose: As with all of these standards, the students find this more exciting and relevant when using a contemporary story like “Serial.” This is great practice for standardized tests, but it’s also fun and easy to pinpoint who these characters are and analyze “what’s in it for them.” For the more advanced students, they can get a good lesson on analyzing a narrator’s point of view (objective reporter?) and purpose.  Every class’s first answer was  “to get Adnan out of jail” which leads to a great discussion on purpose (which is probably something more like “she’s trying to tell a good story to interest or entertain us enough to listen next week”).
Explain how the way the text is written helps the author with the purpose: See Standard 5.
Explain how the text would be written differently if there were a different purpose: The previous lesson leads directly to consideration of how she would change her form, tone, and audience if she were tyring to free Adnan.

Reading Standard 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media.

Combine an understanding of visual information with your reading: This is where “Serial” is superior to most texts.  Today we looked at the call logs, the map of the cell phone towers, an aerial view of Woodlawn High, and a street view of Best Buy. We actually used the street view to “drive” the exact route that Jay describes.  This not only supplements our primary “reading” of the text, it literally informs it (our opinions changed once we did our own direct research).
Compare/contrast a written text with a different medium to evaluate each: There have been some excellent, insightful “quick-writes” done about the pros and cons of listening to a story instead of reading one.  Even a student-centered chart of evaluation is interesting, quick, insightful, and touching on higher orders of thinking.
Analyze various stories in different media: There are plenty of “different media” in the self-contained world of “Serial,” but you/they can easily find other blogs and forums that are on fire with passionate discourse.
Combine multiple sources and formats of info to solve a problem or question: This is exactly what “Serial” seems to be all about.  After Episode 5, I demanded that my “detectives” (or lawyers or whatever) move on from passively judging and actually pose a theory or two that fits with all the evidence presented.

Reading Standard 8: Evaluating arguments

Identify the argument and list the claims: This is basically just common comprehension. A good start, particularly if you’re scaffolding for certain students.
Evaluate the line of reasoning: We do a unit on logic, so they have fun applying their learning to a real-life case.  What character’s arguments (including the narrator’s!) make logical sense?
Evaluate the relevance, truthfulness, and sufficiency of evidence: Again, this is just “Serial” in a nutshell. All across the country, people are telling their friends to tune in every Thursday so they can evaluate the relevance, truthfulness, and sufficiency of evidence with each other.

Reading Standard 9: Analyzing multiple texts that address similar themes and subjects.

Show how different viewpoints address the same subject in different ways: This one seems pretty difficult to me, but worthwhile if your students can handle it. How are people who share a viewpoint sharing it in different ways? How are opposing viewpoints being presented in superior, inferior, or similar ways?

The Writing Standards

The anchor standards for writing can be addressed so easily that I’m not going to waste your time spelling it out.  All that I’ll say is that since we’re getting so many opportunities to evaluate so many different sources, the students are allowed a unique experience to use their standard-based skills in a very real way.  And unlike experiences where they are reading “old” literature, they have a very real opportunity to synthesize the information into a genuinely new and unpublished perspective.

Writing Standards 1, 2, 7, 8, and 9 all have to do with developing claims based on evidence found from various sources that have been critically evaluated.  Writing Standards 4 and 5 address basic writing skills, and Standard 6 will come into play if your students want to join Twitter, Reddit, or any other site to engage in their relevant discussions.

If you have any more ideas of how to use “Serial” to teach the Common Core, please share!  My students usually listen to each episode about a week after it comes out, so I can screen it for appropriate content and create a suitable lesson plan. In other words, I have no specific plans for the next six episodes – feel free to help out…

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How to Win: A Pedagogy of Competition

Note: This year in my 11th grade English class, I am experimenting with "Plan A": If every student cooperates instead of competes, gives full effort every day, and takes responsibility for their own learning, then everyone is promised an A.  I'm not doing this to be nice; I'm doing it because I think it will help student learning.  For more details about Plan A, see the first blog post.

Before I reflect on my accommodation-centered experiment, I want to remember the person, coach, and teacher I used to be.  Before I write about shared documents and group presentations, I want to recall the fist fight between me and my best friend at our football practice twenty years ago, the nausea I felt after a few heart-breaking losses, and the exhilaration of my favorite victories.

Historically speaking, competition has always accelerated my learning curve, and improved me as a person.  In high school, I was notoriously uncompetitive with my studies and we would help each other study/cheat for every test, and I was a mediocre learner; in college, meanwhile, I wore a hood to every test and "trained" for every exam, and I earned almost all A's.  As a cooperative friend and teammate in high school, I was pretty athletic but generally had an average build; in college, where it was much more clear that we young men were competing for the attention of young women, I soon benched 300 pounds and biked down the coast of California.  When Dr. Robertson turned up the heat in our graduate literature class, I published my first paper; when it was clear I was competing with my fellow grad students, I was soon speaking at conferences.

With countless other examples out there, I don't think I need to belabor the point -- we all know that competition can help sharpen our skills.  What I want emphasize is that the concept of competition used to be central to my own personal growth, and the absolute basis of my subsequent pedagogy. And I feel like it used to be the norm in our American culture.  Now, I often require my students to help each other, and I'm trying to give all of my students A's.  What happened?


Over ten years ago, in grad school at the University of Colorado, I used to argue with Dr. Bickman in both his "pedagogy lab" and his transcendentalist literature class. On the first day of both classes, he promised us all A's, let us design our own curriculum, and read at our own pace.  I wanted more.  I wanted my sword sharpened by competition, and I wanted to win.  

To be clear, I didn't want my classmates to lose, and I believed the journey was more important than the destination. It's just that I wanted to improve myself and others, and fierce competition has historically proven to be the most efficient (and fun) way to accomplish this.  Without exception, my heroes were all very competitive, and I admired and desired both their ultimate success and the journey that took them there. 

As a baseball coach a decade ago, I would quote Proverbs 27:17: "As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend." I once kicked my JV team off the practice field for not taking a scrimmage against freshmen seriously enough. A former player still (fondly) remembers me pounding ground balls at him while his elbows were bleeding from diving so much.  When a rival coach was upset that my team tried their hardest to trigger the "mercy rule" against his second-place team, I told him from across the field that he should "get his team on the bus and go home."  These were normal occurrences, and there are a hundred similar examples.  We scrimmaged in almost every practice, and the players competed fiercely for playing time.

I don't want to paint a dark picture of another outrageous coach who thinks he's teaching "the way of the fist" to the Cobra Kai.  First of all, we had fun.  A lot of fun.  I was often very intense, sometimes a little crazy, but never mean.  I would certainly raise my voice, sometimes in close proximity to the target, and occasionally with adult language, but always in reference to disciplining an action, which I thought (and still think) was fair and just.  I never criticized the player themselves (nothing like "you're a loser"); I never made it personal. But I made a certain telephone pole famous for all the times the boys had to "run a pole" (run up a mountain to touch the telephone pole) for being late, or calling me Godsey instead of Coach Godsey, or even failing at certain mental drills.  But there was lots of time for games, and I remember a lot of laughing and cheering.  It was a really fun team.

I want to emphasize (because this will be important soon) that this was the culture.  The strict discipline, the yelling, the demand for excellence, the competitive drive to be the best, and the intensity was normal.  It was the culture that my favorite coaches presented me, and I think it was similar to what the parents of my players expected.  If I ever showed mercy on a player in terms of discipline, they usually refused it; they'd sometimes even discipline themselves before I could. In six or seven seasons, nobody complained, and there were no fights on the team.

Not only was it fun, but we went 105-35 over seven years, with five championships. Two of the players went on to play at Air Force, one at Hofstra, two at Fullerton, one at Hawaii, several at smaller colleges, and one of them just ended his career in the minor leagues (as high as AA). 

I didn't see any reason why these coaching philosophies shouldn't transfer over into the classroom. And for several years, they did.

As an AP English teacher at SLO High, my students competed in intense debates, there was a tournament bracket for poetry recitation, and my final was possibly the toughest test in the state of California. I can barely believe I did this now, but I would typically kick students out of class who hadn't done their homework (they would sit outside in relative shame, and catch up on their reading). To help them practice personal statements for college admission, I invented a massive game where they applied to "mock colleges" run by other students, and were literally accepted, recruited, or rejected by their peers. Was it harsh? Sometimes. But it was fun, it made them focus on writing a great essay, and it stopped them from sending a bad essay to the college of their choice.  

Again, we had a lot of fun, and I was a popular teacher. The students elected me Grand Marshal of homecoming, I was often nominated as "Teacher of the Year," and they asked me to speak at graduation festivities four different times.  The AP scores were very good; almost every student who wanted to attend a UC was accepted; and it wasn't surprising when a few students were accepted at elite schools like Stanford and Harvard. My especial pride comes from the former students who are delighted to see me. Without exception, they tell me how fun my class was; and without exception, they tell me how easy their college English classes were/are (at any school) in comparison to mine.

I really miss those classes.

So what happened?  Why have so many things not only shifted, but morphed into their opposite?

We used to always compete; now my students almost never compete against each other.
I used to spend three solid days commenting on papers; now the students typically self-assess.
We used to laugh at "the standards"; now my students have them in a packet on their desks.
Earning an A used to be a badge of honor; now it's practically given to them.
I used to offer only one "accommodation": the freedom to transfer out; now I've semi-seriously invented "Acc-Cent" (accommodation-centered pedagogy) and I don't even blink at any extended absence, late transfer, language difficulties, or disabilities of any kind.

So what happened? Well, there are four major suspects, and maybe they're working together. I started coaching girls basketball, I transferred to a school with different demographics, I started teaching "college prep" instead of AP, and I had my first child. But I just spent so much time on memory lane, I'll have to wait to write about that...

Upcoming post: What happened at Morro Bay High (or, "How I practically destroyed a boys basketball program")