Category Archives: Teaching 2020_2021

The Human STain

“…how easily life can be one thing rather than another and how accidentally a destiny is made…on the other hand, how accidental fate may seem when things can never turn out other than they do.”

(As I read the third round of Gatsby essays, this time on the American Dream, and feel the same ideas bubbling up, many of which flow directly from a google search of “Gatsby American Dream” or “Gatsby Opportunity”, I’m wondering if next year if I shape the essays as a response to quotes like this. ).

Roth, Philip. The Human Stain.(Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), pp.125-126.

Great Line on introductions

What the reader wants to know is not what you plan to say but where you stand. They need some assurance that your point of view promises fresh illumination. They listen to your tone of voice, which conveys your intentions more quickly and clearly than a summary outline of the forthcoming composition. A vigorous introduction, therefore, will seek to establish not so much the subject matter to be addressed as the author’s way of addressing it. It will announce or at least prefigure the argument the author plans to pursue.

Lasch, Christopher. Plain Style: A Guide to Written English. Edited by Stewart Weaver. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Classroom verbs

If I were running PD, I might try this activity. First step: make a list of all the verbs that describe what’s happening in your classroom. Then try to cluster them together.

Second step: Now do it for zoom school. It’s much harder to come up with actions and much easier to come up with descriptions. (The other option would be to run and make copies and then cross out the verbs that aren’t happening in zoom school.).

Third step: Knowing that everyone is utterly exhausted and frustrated, what are three concrete things could you do to bring the verbs from the first drawing to your Zoom class?

With my advisory, or even one of my classes, I’d love to see both student versions of this, i.e., sleeping, watching (TV), Tiktok’ing, surrendering/giving up, screaming (at the technology).

Origin Stories

Friday, in English, spent the period pondering origin stories. What work do they do? How do we tell different versions? What shorthand do they provide, i.e., when someone says “I’m from Boston“, what work does that do? When I talk about my parents having “met in San Francisco in the 1960s” how does that differ from describing a “daughter of Catholic Delco” and the “son of a TV/Radio repairman from the Altoona area”?

I had cooked up this playlist — still working on it — as a way of sharing a few songs about the claims we make about where we come from. I’m sure that folks have other suggestions (my colleagues added a number…).

(Clapper what u know about Drake/Crying emoji x2).

All of this was in service of setting up chapter six of Gatsby, where we meet James Gatz for the first time, and learn the story of what happened before he met Daisy.

A good conversation. At least a portion of the class wanted to get back to the “is this love or is this obsession” conversation; several versions “creepy vs love” and “weird vs. love” emerged.

Next we’ll have the idea vs. reality conversation; is Daisy an ideal, much like Gatsby’s new identity?

I also need to circle back to the new money vs. old money and the markers of class. Always use this video for that discussion; most humans know the feeling of being caught out for various reasons. Like Gatsby — my God the man means to go with us — we likely have some memory, some idea, some lingering embarrassment.

February 11th

Another Thursday. These are tough.  

Podcasting began with laying out the timeline for our entries into the NPR contest. The due date is March 11th, so I had laid out a series of assignments that will hopefully get kids across that finish line and maybe even generate a winner.  There were some terrific ideas. Of course, we’ll be making these in a Pandemic, so the ideas are confined to what you can pull off around your house. 

But in both podcasting and English I was reminded of the difficulty of teaching technical skills (for lack of a better term.). In podcasting, I’d love to be able to teach smooth audio transitions within their pieces, which is absolutely necessary, but I don’t know how to do this on-line, when pretty much everyone is using different audio software.  Similarly, in English — more on this later — I was trying to get everyone thinking about how to set up and explain a quote. 

Both of these skills require two steps: the work the community does to identify what it looks like when done well and then an individual working to do it on their own.  In person, I facilitate the first step, spiking the punch when I need to, and then look over kids’ shoulders for the second.  On zoom, I try to facilitate the first step while having no idea whether it’s working, and then get super frustrated at how overstimulated I am as I attempt the second while having no shoulder to look over.  

(Note: for podcasting next year…I’m going to have to fundraise to get more than a few computers with real audio software (I love Hindenburg for this work) so that we can all have one learning curve together.) 

In history, my opening activity went better than I expected, as we compared the process of finding truth in a courtroom versus finding truth as historians. Lots of great ideas.

E. pointed out the group dynamics of a jury and how that might compare to communal understandings; he also underscored the nature of rules.

A. highlighted the tensions of a courtroom; the combative nature of a trial (I offered the notion of an adversarial relationship in trying to get to the truth.)

A. suggested that there were rules around evidence and questioned what happens when evidence doesn’t exist.

D/M: both pointed out that issues of power emerge in a courtroom — politics, race, class, gender, wealth might create bias.

I then modeled potential approaches to the “Truth Toolkit”. As I was doing it, I came up with another idea — a kind of map, modeled after the sort of novelty maps you find in restaurants down the shore. This idea was spurred on by A’s even better idea of thinking of it like a children’s menu at a restaurant.  I’d love to see that.   

Our last activity was to look at the Table of Contents from two books: E.H. Carr’s What is History and Oscar Handlin’s Truth in History.  In groups, they had to generate questions that, based upon the chapter titles, might be required to come to the truth. These documents came out fairly well. Thanks to S. for highlighting the Carr chapter on morality and the Handlin chapter on “Good guys and bad” to provoke an exchange on how we see humans.

It’s funny — the assumption I’m fighting against, the one I need to do a journal entry next week to get after the most, is still this idea that everyone is entitled to their own truth.  I can’t go at it directly but I need to do something next week where they explain why this is right and why this is wrong.   I also need to finalize the benchmark, not so much the project, but the materials to be used to make the project. If they’re going to create a booklet with the purpose of exploring the truth around a public policy, I need to make sure I’ve got enough of a structure to prevent the arrival of sixty-one wikipedia articles.   

Ate some lunch then came back for English 3.  Had some luck with the opener — how did these three themes come into your life over the past three days — and then tried, unsuccessfully, to practice doing two things with quotes from Gatsby: 

1. Set the quote up. 
2. Explain its significance in as succinct a way as possible.   

I did this on chats. Maybe not the best approach. Had a document ready for this process. Also not convinced that’s the best approach. Maybe try a google form with the other stream tomorrow?  

We then had a reasonably good time working our way through chapter two.  The “Nick is actually gay” interpretation broke out much earlier this year than the past two years.  I don’t have a problem with this interpretation — or any interpretation — if it’s rooted in a close reading of the text, and a reflection on Nick’s identity would provide ample material for either of their short essays on opportunity or authenticity.  One notion that’s huge in adolescent/human minds is staying true to yourself and they’re alert to the moments when these characters betray themselves or they stated ideals. (Alas, now that I’m old I know that we all skate on the edge of hypocrisy with each action we take and that any true self of my own is complicated mess, shifting each day…).

This is also one of the moments where I wish there were countless teacher memoirs that you could look at; if you were teaching Gatsby twenty years ago, when did this interpretation occur? Or what did the day-to-day conversations look like in a classroom fifty years ago, when a teacher worked their way through these sorts of novels.  Yeah, I get it, maybe there was no conversation, but still, what were they talking about and doing? How did the students of the mid-1980s respond — Greed is Good, It’s morning in America — to this book?

CRT and the Brain

So much of chapter seven revolves around the question of how I help everyone in my room see a path towards success. Did this drawing to make sense of the chapter and to think of questions I try to address each day.

Hammond, Zaretta L. Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin, 2014.

February 9th

US History

(I’m close to giving up on Substack. I don’t have enough time for the close editing I can do on a blog; I also don’t want to be one more person adding to people’s inboxes.).

We continued to drive towards our first assignment, something I’ve become clearer and clearer about what I want to see. I want them to create a cool graphic, an illustration, a road map, a set of paths towards finding the historical truth. I want the illustration to demonstrate their thinking on this and the ways in which they’ve internalized the various questions we’ve been churning on.  An idea I had was that we’d share them with the ninth or tenth grade classes and have them comment on how useful the drawings are. 

But we began with the most evil of evil things teachers can do — a reading quiz on the article they read. Not that evil — the article was short enough — and my questions general enough that everyone who spent any time with the article should have had an opportunity to do well. 

This is also a Zoom school, and I needed to send the message that this is serious, that you can’t be watching reality TV while you’re in class.  I’m not usually a quiz guy but I do like to do it occasionally to communicate that sometimes you have to listen, do the work, and click submit when the teacher asks you to.  

Some great thoughts emerged during our discussion of the article:  

One student, who I need to write this in her college recommendation letter, did it again, nailing the key line from the article:  

“Uncovering the truth means hearing the words of people who aren’t you.”  

B. Reminded us that research provides deep rabbit holes. 

C. Pointed out that you have to remain aware of the sources of your own opinions. 

K. And P. Noted that you have to have sufficient evidence to back up your claims. 

P. Used the term “reliability” which I thought was awesome.   

In the second stream, A noted that “truth won’t be the first thing”, which is an excellent ways of saying it.  If they take nothing else from these conversations other than it’s work to get to the truth, I’ll be happy.  Indeed, A. (different A) pointed out that without knowing the sources, you don’t really know the context of the person’s argument, and underscored (again) that it’s a long process.   The second stream, led by D. and L. had a lot to say about the nature of sources in the age of the internet, i.e., the sorting mechanism you employ will shape the nature of your work.   

In small groups, the kids read Jeanne Theoharris’s piece from Sunday’s paper.  I wanted them to focus on how a moment of time can be understood and how the moment of time where we stand shapes how we view the past. The easy one, given this article, is to think about how this moment, this BLM moment, shapes our understanding of the Civil Rights Movement.   

Our conversations had some great points:  

L. Pointed out that we always have to “re-evaluate what we know about history; it may be wrong.” 

R. Noted that we need to look at the truth, to constantly search to “expand our knowledge of it” and to make sure we’re thinking about what “didn’t get shown.”   

A. Brought a painting metaphor into the conversation; do we stand an inch a way or do we stand eight feet away? How did the painter get to this idea? What are the “many things that led to his moment”?   

M. Pointed out the role that myths play and how stories we’ve always been told can appear unshakeable or as the unvarnished truth.  

B:  How are individuals “known for something”?   What defines an event?

L::  What is the collective truth? In other words, what do we accept as the truth about America or history?  How does that truth “shelter us”?   

M:  Remember that “these narratives might not be true.”  

All in all, a good conversation and good work thinking about the process of getting to the truth. You could probably accuse me of being overly reliant on the New York Times, just as you could probably accuse me of being too much of a Jill Lepore fan.  But life on Zoom limits things.    

Mann, Mary. “Opinion | To Learn the Truth, Read My Wikipedia Entry on Sichuan Peppers.” The New York Times, October 23, 2020, sec. Opinion.

Theoharis, Jeanne. “Opinion | The Real Rosa Parks Story Is Better Than the Fairy Tale.” The New York Times, February 1, 2021, sec. Opinion.

February 4th

Podcasting/US History/English 3

There’s a terrific book by an old friend about what it means to be an adjunct, Fight for your Long Day.  That life — traveling place to place, not having a secure position, working on the whim of a Dean — is a hard life. While I’m an adjunct (actually my formal title is Lecturer B), I’m not dependent on that position. And I do it to study with terrific undergrads and maybe inspire a few of them to come work with me in urban schools.

But most high school rosters, particularly at places where the schedule moves or cascades, will have a long day. Thursday is my tough day this year, where I’m teaching the entire day straight. And I teach three different classes on Thursdays: Intro to podcasting, American History, and English Three.  The variety is a good thing; shifting gears three times, not so much.  By the time I get to English Three, I’m usually a bit punch drunk and have to make sure nothing inappropriate comes out of my mouth.   

Podcasting has been an awesome course this year. The kids have created some cool pieces. I’m not an audio engineer, much as I’d like to be one, but teaching technical skills over zoom to kids using five or six different audio editing programs, some web-based and some software, isn’t easy. Or fun. Or feasible.  If I can finish the year with a few cool downloads, it’ll be a success.   Right now we’re finishing up this idea of transitions and we’ll eventually have something I’ll publish here.   

American history was next. I’m working to set the stage, to set up an assessment that’s still unformed, even if I had a great idea while walking for what this will eventually look like.  We had a good conversation about the different ways one pursues truth as an individual and how historians do it. Then we turned to the uses of truth and compared these two paragraphs:  

Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, its diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day. The seeds of all that were planted long before our official birth date, in 1776, when the men known as our founders formally declared independence from Britain.   (1619 project introduction). 

The declared purpose of the President’s Advisory 1776  Commission is to “enable a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776 and to strive to form a more perfect Union.” This requires a restoration of American education, which can only be grounded on a history of those principles that is “accurate, honest, unifying, inspiring, and ennobling.”  And a rediscovery of our shared identity rooted in our founding principles is the path to a renewed American unity and a confident American future. (1776 Presidential Commission, hyperlink no longer exists.)  

The prompt on this Jamboard was to consider how each of these projects envisioned truth and the pursuit of truth.  

Favorite comments:  

This person is looking at the impact and the roots of what America is. They are looking through a lens of why we are the way that we are, and that’s where the truth lies.


They want to look at truth more as a tool almost, something to unify and inspire the future. They look at the past as events to learn about to inspire the future, less like causes more like inspiration. 

(Both from J.). 

Onto English Three where I continued to launch our reading of Gatsby.  We processed their understandings of the American Dream. As they’re going to start reading this weekend, I wanted to set up the opening line. (I also had to explain that the first chapter is the waiting room on a roller coaster — anxiety and confusion and uncertainty — and the next two chapters will be the click-click on the way to the top.  Then the novel takes off.  I don’t know… there’s a trickiness to this first chapter, I think, and I have to help them get started and remind them that they’ll be coming back to this chapter as the book goes on.).  

Anyway, this activity turned out well: first line of the novel followed by by bits of advice offered to water stream by their elders.  

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

Look at your mistakes as a learning opportunity
put your money in your sock so if someone steals your bag you won’t be broke
everyone looks better with lipstick
nobody is meant to complete you
nothing is free
There is no right choice in life. It’s all a trade-off. Just depends how much you get screwed over. 
don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good
there’s always going to be people that you don’t like in life
have a safe for your money but only put half in. hide the rest in random places so if you’re robbed you wont be broke
Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle for the full duration of the ride
it takes two to tangle
holding grudges is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die
cross the street like the cars are trying to hit you. 
Always look at both sides of the story

“Whenever you feel  like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”