Going through a summer swoon? Turn to technology for a tune-up!

As is the case with most teachers, I have not given much thought to the upcoming school year. Okay, well perhaps a little thought – but not much! Teachers rarely have the time to decompress during the year, and despite what people think, we deserve every bit of summer break that we get. I have tried to make the most of this year’s vacation and began it on a great note with a trip to London in late-June. Of course, I found myself in Shakespeare heaven, with visits to Stratford-upon-Avon and the Globe Theatre. I also was amazed by Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey – what a sight! However, my three friends and I found plenty of time to sample delicious cuisine, imbibe some tasty drinks, and watch Wimbledon (live and in person!) and the World Cup. Far from being an edu-vacational trip, London afforded me the chance to get away and to enjoy life post-teaching.

That said, I would be foolish if I said that I have ignored education completely during the summer. As an English teacher, I always am thinking about what I can do to make the subsequent year a more successful one than the previous one was. I don’t want to inundate myself with new material over the summer, so what’s the solution? Technology. Most teachers use technology to some extent in order to improve their lessons or to perform intense research for a given topic. While that works fine, how many of you use Twitter to catch up on educational ongoings? What about Zite or Flipboard to read articles about teaching and learning? Those apps (and many more) allow anyone with a computer, phone, or tablet to keep up with any topic, any time, any place. I have two Twitter accounts: one for my life outside of teaching, and one solely devoted to teaching and education. Having such an account really has come in handy; for example, because I follow Trevor Packer (the College Board AP supervisor), I was able to learn about the release of AP scores for my class. Zite – an app that allows uses to subscribe to various news sources – delivers fresh education news to me several times a day in an easy-to-read format. (Flipboard does the same.) Basically, teachers can stay engaged when it comes to education without being overwhelmed by technology.

Technology has become an increasingly vital part of teaching and learning over the past few years. Many schools (including mine) allow students to use laptops or tablets in the classroom, and teachers constantly deploy social media and other student-friendly technology pieces to make the lessons more engaging. While most of us need a tech break over the summer, we at least should turn to it to keep our saws sharpened – if for no other reason than to lessen the “shock” of returning to the classroom!

Having said that, don’t forget to give yourself time to enjoy the summer. Like I said before, we’ve earned it!

The two photos below: a Nutella milkshake, and a crispy bacon and spinach pancake crepe. I enjoyed both at My Old Dutch Pancake House (the Kensington location) in London. Delicious!

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The Changing Literary Canon

As an English teacher, I often get bored teaching the same books year after year. Sure, students need to know the “classics” from various genres, but will their lives really suffer if they don’t get the chance to read The Scarlet Letter? (For the record, I do enjoy teaching Nathaniel Hawthorne’s masterpiece.) Some teachers would answer “Yes!” to the preceding question; in their minds, students need exposure to great works of literature in order to appreciate many of the books they read for pleasure.

The aforementioned falls under the much-discussed idea of a “literary canon” of novels, plays, and other works. In short, the canon consists of the “best of the best” in literature. But who determines the canon? That’s a difficult question to answer because so many scholars have opinions on what constitutes literary merit. For example, most would agree that Hawthorne’s work belongs in the canon, but why? Memorable characters? A rich storyline? A lasting influence on society? (Think about the scarlet “A” as a pop culture icon.) No one really knows, and those that say they do likely are putting forth their own opinions and not those of their contemporaries. The thought still exists among many English teachers and literary scholars that the literary canon cannot possibly include mass-market fiction, books that any average person could purchase in the Barnes & Noble bestseller section. However, while I respect literary traditionalists, I must disagree with their narrow-minded viewpoints toward the canon. The time has come to re-evaluate how we define a work as canonical. As Bob Dylan sings, “The times they are a-changin’.”

Case in point: this year in my AP Literature class, I taught a book that came out less than three years ago and that was written by one of my favorite modern authors. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini tells interlocking stories focusing on the lives of two young girls growing up in modern-day Afghanistan. The novel, a follow-up to his world renowned work The Kite Runner, instantly became one of the most successful books I have ever taught in ten years of teaching. The students, some of whom previously had read it, became attached to the characters, ideas, and themes like no other book we studied last year. The novel might not be difficult to read, but Hosseini takes his readers on a rollercoaster of emotions that leaves them much more knowledgable of life in Afghanistan. Not many resources (in terms of lesson plans or scholarly criticism) exist in connection with the book, but that just empowered me to come up with meaningful methods for approaching the book. My students enjoyed the book so much that many of them used it as their “work of choice” in the AP exam free response question.

Despite the positive reception, however, some (including in my own school) have refused to recognize the quality of Hosseini’s work. They see his novels as nothing more than fluff with no substance. Unfortunately, the detractors fail to grasp the true impact that such writing has on those that read it. Let’s go back to Hawthorne and the questions I asked about The Scarlet Letter, applying them to A Thousand Splendid Suns. Does Hosseini’s novel contain memorable characters? A rich storyline? Yes, and yes. Does it resonate with the public? Absolutely. Oh, and was The Scarlet Letter once a mass-market book designed to appeal to the public? Yup. Why, then, should Hosseini be left off the canon? Because he still is alive? Because his novels are much more modern? If you answered “yes” to either question, you need to open your mind and realize that the age of literature has nothing to do with whether or not it is canonical. Plenty of old works exist that are utter rubbish! My point is this: literature doesn’t have to move you to tears or make you ponder life’s existence in order for it to count as canonical.

To their credit, the College Board has begun to modernize its list of works considered of literary merit, indicating a shift in thinking when it comes to the canon. That shift needs to continue and to make its way into the minds of those with literary tunnel-vision. I once heard a radio station ad that went: “It doesn’t have to be old to be classic.” I hold that the same applies to literature.

 

Google Drive shifts into reverse.


Teachers of the world, let's face it – technology has made our jobs much easier. While I admire those who still record their attendance in a paper book, I absolutely do not miss the days of hard copy grade books and planners. My appreciation of technology has increased over the years, especially as it has helped me grade countless essays on a regular basis. I love teaching English but, until technology intervened, shuddered at the thought of taking a stack of essays home and grading them. Several years ago, I moved to electronic essay grading, having my students upload their essays via Moodle (our course management system) and then returning the essays using the comment feature in Microsoft Word. That method worked very well for awhile, but I soon wondered if there was an easier way to accomplish my task.

Enter Google Drive.

Beginning as Google Docs/Slides/Sheets, Google Drive appeared to be everything I wanted in an online writing system: easy, convenient, and most of all, fast. Because our school subscribed (and still subscribes) to Google Apps for Education, our students have access to Google Drive and can compose and share documents in no time. What does that mean for me? Well, rather than downloading and uploading 30 essays, I could have my students write their essays in class (or at home) and then share their essays with me so that I could grade them. No downloading, no uploading, no problem! As if that wasn't enough, I also could grade the essays on my iPad (or my iPhone, if I desired) and avoid having to haul my laptop around with me. Talk about convenient, right?

Then, Google Drive changed. And the world wept.

Okay, the world might not have wept, but I (figuratively) did. Last week, Google announced that it had spun off Google Docs, Sheets, and (coming soon) Slides into separate iOS and Android apps. What did that mean? Simple: rather than go into Drive to compose an essay, a student might open Docs, type the essay, and then “save” (it autosaves) it to their Drive. Without a doubt, this was Google's response to Microsoft releasing Word, PowerPoint, and Excel as separate Office apps for the iPad. Fine, Google was copying Microsoft. What's the problem, you might ask?

While Google emulated Microsoft in several ways, the one thing it did not do was port the folder hierarchy to Docs. While Microsoft baked in OneDrive access in each app (Word/PowerPoint/Excel), Google failed to do that for Docs, Sheets, and (I assume) Slides. For me, then, if I wanted to grade on my iPad, I could not go to my Drive folders in Docs and grade essays. Rather, I had to go to Drive, open the folder, choose a document, and then wait for it to toggle to Docs. Yes – I would have to repeat this 30 times if I had 30 essays. No more smooth opening and closing in Drive.

For the first time in recent memory, I have a serious problem with one of Google's products, a problem that might force me to re-evaluate whether it is worth it to use as my primary online essay source. After all, now that Microsoft Word comes on the iPad, I can instruct my students to share their Word documents via Office 365 and then grade them on the iPad without having to upload and download. Word for iPad also works very well, and while many have complained about the need for an Office 365 subscription, I have found it to be well worth the price – and so have 27 million others. Office always has been the gold standard when it comes to productivity, and now Microsoft can boast a smoother and more fluid document management system than Google. Whoever thought that would happen, right?

My hope is that Google realizes the error of its ways and, at the very least, improves the functionality of its individual apps. They really are great for students and educators alike in that they offer superior collaboration opportunities and great ease of use. However, if no changes are made, I likely will go back to old faithful and make Office for iPad my suite of choice. Google, you're officially on notice.

I'm interested to hear from other educators who may be using Google Drive and/or Office for iPad. What are your thoughts on the changes? Does anyone use other products besides the two I mentioned? Sound off in the comments!

 

Looking good for 450!

In case you missed the fanfare, today marks William Shakespeare's 450th birthday. Yes, he's still no longer with us – but did that ever matter in the first place? A quick glance of social media (most notably, Twitter) shows that many people are celebrating the bard's supposed birthday. Why “supposed” birthday? Simple: no one knows the exact date of William Shakespeare's birth. Many historians have based their birth judgments on his baptismal certificate, which shows a baptism date of April 26th. Of course, this means that Shakespeare would have been baptized mere days after he was born, but that's another discussion for another day. (Don't even get me started on the authorship question, either!)

Most, if not all, English teachers still relish teaching Shakespeare's plays and poetry, even if students find them maddeningly complex and lacking in educational value. True, his language still perplexes even the brightest of educators, but the themes in his plays remain very relevant to today's (and tomorrow's) world. The average student struggles with Shakespeare more than any other author or playwright, but such struggle does not diminish from the inherent value derived by looking at his work. (Oh, and to clear up a misconception, Shakespeare wrote in Modern English – yes, the same English you and I speak on a regular basis. Would you like to see Middle English? Old English?) How has Shakespeare maintained his place atop the educational pedestal? Among other things, we have two “spheres” to thank for that: the critical sphere, and the digital sphere.

A simple search of Shakespeare criticism reveals an abundance of books, articles, and other relevant commentaries on his works. Scholars have continued to dissect Shakespeare's works decade after decade and show absolutely no signs of letting up anytime soon. Case in point: Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro recently released his latest Shakespeare commentary entitled Shakespeare in America: From the Revolution to Now, in which he examines the bard's influence on the development of the United States. While one might question the need for such a study, Shapiro's work illustrates how Shakespeare's ideas shaped much of what we hold as “sacred” in American culture. Consider also the fact that of all dramas ever published, Shakespeare's plays are performed the most on a consistent basis in almost every major city around the world. That has to mean something, doesn't it? After all, if society still held Shakespeare's contemporaries in as high regard as it does Shakespeare, we likely would see more performances of Christopher Marlowe's plays. (Poor, poor Marlowe – talk about writing in the shadow of a giant!) In any case, the more Shakespeare's plays are performed, the more they remain important enough for critics to examine. The plays help the critics, and vice-versa. If you are ever at a loss for what to write about, you cannot go wrong with a study of why (insert play or sonnet title here) still holds up in 21st century circles.

We also can thank the rise of the Internet (does anyone even call it that anymore?) and digitization of texts for the proliferation of Shakespeare, especially in the world of education. Thanks to the pre-copyright laws, anyone and everyone can gain access to Shakespeare's works in a number of ways. Want to read a basic version of Hamlet? Go to Project Gutenberg, search for Hamlet, and download the entire play on your computer or other device. The cost? Absolutely nothing. Feel like browsing through a collection of his works with notes, insights, and other goodies? Readdle's Shakespeare and Shakespeare Pro apps (the latter a paid and more robust app, and both apps iOS only – sorry, Android users) are fantastic resources for anyone looking for a wealth of information on the man, the myth, the legend we call Shakespeare. I use the aforementioned apps whenever I teach Shakespeare to my students and/or when I need a “quick fix” myself. My favorite part of the apps? The glossary of terms. If you have a question about a word in one of his works, you need only go to the glossary to discover its meaning. (Of course, we know that Shakespeare coined many words currently a part of our everyday lexicon!) Readdle's developers have done their homework in creating these apps and update them regularly to ensure they are of the highest quality. End of shameless plug. 🙂

I could write about Shakespeare forever, but I will end with this: chances are, you have seen something Shakespeare related every single day of your life. Remember watching The Lion King? Yep, that's Shakespeare. How about reading the Harry Potter series? Uh-huh, Shakespeare influenced J.K. Rowling's writing of the books. Ever utter the words, “To be, or not to be?” Yup, you are quoting Hamlet. And perhaps the most recent example of Shakespeare's relevancy (and something that I have yet to but definitely will read): Shakespeare meets Star Wars. May the forceth be with thou.

As you can see, Shakespeare remains an important part of the educational process and, in my opinion, will continue to do so long into the future. I'm willing to bet that he never imagined his plays and poems would be studied 450 years later, but that's what makes him such an important figure in literature and beyond.

Happy Birthday, Willie Shakespeare!

 

What’s your pleasure?

“So much to do, so little time.”

 

If ever there was a motto for today's average student, the above might be it. Let's face it: most high school students are overcommitted when it comes to classes, extracurricular activities, after-school employment, and…oh yes, schoolwork. We can place the blame on multiple parties, but the fact remains that students are spending most of their days attempting to juggle multiple responsibilities. In doing so, they fail to realize that something has to lose – and that “something” might be their sense of direction and purpose.

 

Ask the typical student what he or she seeks to accomplish, and you'll probably get a laundry list of goals and achievements. Academically speaking, students desire to take as many advanced classes as they can fit into their schedule. Or do they? I recently overheard one of my students complaining about her AP Biology class, to which I inquired, “Why are you taking it in the first place?” She responded that she did not know but that she was recommended for it, so she took it. Did she seek a career in the life sciences? Not a chance. In essence, she added hours of studying to her weekly workload because she qualified for the course. Sadly, she is not alone, as many students continue to enroll in upper-level courses not because they want the challenge, but because they feel obligated to take on extra responsibility. They feel pressure from parents, guidance counselors, and their own peers in selecting courses that may not interest them but look good on a transcript. One has to wonder if they regret their decisions once they arrive at college and are forced to make choices.


Heavy course loads (yet another future blog post) can have detrimental effects on student wellness, especially when combined with a rigorous activity schedule and lack of sleep. I remember one year when a student of mine declared that she only slept for two hours the previous evening. Of course, she was taking five AP courses and participated in several high-demand extracurricular activities, so naturally her schedule left her little time to sleep. She did work very hard and ended up attending a great college (and law school), but I still wonder (and would love to ask her) – did you take on that schedule because you enjoyed sleeping two hours? Or because you felt obligated to overcommit yourself? More importantly, did you manage to find YOUR path? I hope yes, but I believe no.

 

Students need to challenge themselves – I firmly believe that. However, they also need to discover their true passions in learning, whether it be studying classical languages or pursuing a career in engineering. They cannot do that if they spent every waking hour…awake. In short, educators at every level must ensure that students love what they do and do what they love.