Category Archives: Reflection

Life is Not a Solo Act. [Nor is teaching.]

My 11th grade English teacher had one motto and one motto only for nearly every inquiry or sought after advice: life is not a solo act.  A high school me understood that as the importance of friends but, while a true sentiment, not quite how I understand that motto now.  In fact, my previous understanding rings a bit false; we all need friends but that doesn’t always guarantee you are not a solo act.  Friends are often our most forgiving audience.  No- I think Mrs. Isenhour’s motto was about something slightly different than friendship, something the adult me recognizes immediately as a cornerstone of many successful relationships: collaboration.

Teachers are the stuff of collaboration.  The vocation almost demands it, whether collaborating with a student to master an objective, working with another teacher to develop interesting curriculum, or simply attending professional development with a team.  Collaboration might be my favorite thing about teaching, especially any collaboration that allows for interdisciplinary design. And if by chance lunch happens at a table with a diverse crowd, collaboration can be organic as it was the day Ms. Mattox introduced Dr. Ward and I to Kara Walker, a silhouette artist that focuses on the American South as a medium. We spent lunch discussing visual arts and the profound effect visuals have in moving others into action or reflection. And later, when meeting in the Madeira art studio to view Walker’s work, I could easily see the Southern Gothic influence in her art and I couldn’t help but recall the Gothic module in the American Literature curriculum.

It’s very tempting to write an entire diatribe about the Gothic tendencies in the Puritans and the arguably unavoidable connection to a Gothic inheritance in antebellum Southern society, exactly as we did that day.  I’ll spare the reader this in service of staying on topic.

Gothic3What happened next is, quite frankly, my favorite collaboration of this year.  Using Walker’s medium, Ms. Mattox, Dr. Ward and I crafted a project for the Gothic module in which I am affectionately calling “A Light in the Night.” We prompted students to remember their Slavery to Civil Rights module and connect the grotesque displays of racism during that era to Walker’s intent in some of her pieces; we then ask them to recall their current study of the Gothic grotesque.  In many ways, these two courses are the shifting notion of a very literal darkness for the Puritans trying to settle a nation in the wild woods and the very metaphorical darkness found in even the most democratic hearts and minds.  Students then channeled Walker, Gothic motifs, and their own “darkness” to create silhouette candles.  The results were sublimely fantastic, scary even: Mallie’s created a candle that reflected the electric chair and the horrors associated with the death penalty.  Katie’s candle reflected the damsel in distress motif and the fantastical dangers surrounding femaleness.  Ally’s candle watched you, quite literally, behind two demonic eyes. For all students, it was clear how art could channel the feeling of a time period, past and current, to move some into action and some in reflection.

Gothic1As for our own reflection, it’s a project that speaks to the testament of collaboration.  Perhaps Ms. Mattox coined it best, “[Collaboration] provides teachers a new opportunity to view their subject matter in a different light and lens, and share ideas for engaging students on multiple levels of learning.”  Essentially we become students too, waiting for that moment when the interdisciplinary design becomes alive in the mind of others.  While my favorite part was designing the project, there was some shared sentiment for Dr. Ward’s favorite moment: “seeing each little success: the right cut, the design that came out “just so,” the happy accident—each one a lively little moment of insight.”  I think that’s an elegant way of saying that collaboration is very much a reminder of how shared experiences are often the most insightful; that while individuality is indeed a solo act, life is not.

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Becoming an Active Reader

*Note to reader: the original published version is here.*

body_reading“Learning to love reading is easy; learning how to be an active reader is not,” I say often to my students. I hope they start believing me because this is precisely what Madeira English is about: active reading. From the moment they start ninth grade, we push students to articulate the why or significance of a text. By sophomore year, we ask them to expand their ability to express how a writer’s technique creates shades of meaning. In junior year, we inch toward research mode by asking how that significance might correlate to a movement, a historical time period, or even an abstract concept. It is a process and it begins with active reading. But what does that mean?

This is the question asked most often in my classroom usually in some form of “How should I read this?” or “Am I doing annotations the right way?” From a teacher’s perspective, there are many answers to those concerns. For some, annotating means a highlighted, scribbled-in-the-margins book. For others, it means a Cornell-style note page. Last year in my class, it meant a presentation of insights in a shared document. The teacher in me loved this; the reader in me started a rebellion. After all, isn’t part of the assignment how you enjoyed the novel? Why you may not like it? Aren’t annotations a little too forced? I am trying to read, after all.

I really began investing how to join those two things- how to move my students to both a personal response and an academic view of a novel.  I spent the summer like most English teachers, reading, only this time, I really tried to examine how or when my love of the book merged with my thinking about the book. And, while I may be closer to an answer, I do not have a perfect one. I did, however, emerge with new thinking about annotations. When we began Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon in the junior English Slavery to Civil Rights module, I asked students to do two kinds of annotations. The first is what I’m coining “commitment.” The assignment was simple: pick a chapter you liked, a chapter you felt connected the reader to a bigger idea, then organize your annotations for sharing. Not much different than last year; the significance here is “pick a chapter you like.” I’m coining the second collected annotations “invent.” I asked the students to do the same thing except, this time, they were to take the annotations and make something. Anything except notes. Make something that illustrates understanding and demonstrates why they liked the book.

The results were incredible.  See them here:





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Twas the Night Before Class….

Sometimes I’m not quiet, I’m scheming.

I need to write about the VAIS conference that energized my teaching philosophy, but all I can think about right now is the Gatsby game that begins in my classroom tomorrow.  I’m like a kid at Christmas, an excited neurotic bundle.  I can’t wait to see it played, I can’t wait for feedback, and I’m already anticipating writing about it.

I can’t help it; I’m a gamer through and through.

This all started with “what ifs.”  I often find myself on Lauren Roy’s couch (she is the an education technology specialist at my school) playing through “what ifs.”  In my dream school, English is married to computer science or a technology class.  Video games are nothing more than interactive stories; novels are the original role playing games.  Yet so many educators are reluctant to join the two for fear we lose something.

I, on the other hand, think they would be great for each other.

It started like this:

“what if Gatsby were a video game”


“what if we took the desks out of my room”


“didn’t we just buy Ultimate Werewolf for Casual Sundays?”


“couldn’t Gatsby be an Ultimate Werewolf game?”

And suddenly, we were scheming. Two weeks later, and the Gatsby RPG  is ready for play tomorrow.  I’ve deviated a little bit from the original schematics (I’ll write more after the prototype is played through), but it’s just wonderful to know the fruits of collaborating with an amazing “what if” partner.  (Also, OneNote is a great tool to keep all those couch borne “what if” ideas.)

*Click the picture for better detail.*

OneNote Planning for Gatsby

OneNote Planning for Gatsby

For now, I’m giddy and can’t wait to play.  Will report back soon.

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Reason #45 Why I love OneNote

It makes visual journaling soooo much easier….(and this yet after writing about a moleskin journal)Visual Journal Prompts_Page_1

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The Untarnished Moleskin

Mattias Aldofsson's fountain pen moleskin drawings

Mattias Aldofsson’s fountain pen moleskin drawings

I’ve been in love with journaling since I could remember/retain what journaling meant; I remember my first diary very clearly.  It was pink, glittery, and had a lock that was sure to keep out my little sister.  My grandmother bought it at the dollar store, along with the pack of pens that I would lose in the next hour.  But that diary….

It seemed to me (and still does to some extent) that both important people and everyday people alike kept a journal.  Lewis Carroll (of my beloved Alice in Wonderland stage) kept meticulous diaries, even though they would one day incriminate him.  Virginia Woolfe, the first writer I really understood as a woman’s writer, was an avid journal scribe.  Mark Twain was never seen without one, Kurt Cobin rarely seen with his but it existed.  It didn’t matter what walk of life, as a young girl I thought that people were supposed to keep diaries and journals.

I’d like to say that I kept up with my journaling through grade school naivety, through high school angst, and even through college busyness.  But only some of that is true- I went through spurts of intense writing, where every day was meticulously detailed, “Lunch: tray of fries.  Milk.  God, why can’t I stop eating fries.”  As I got older, details become ideologies ruminated at the end of the day, “How is it possible to know when you are in love, like the very moment?”  But the truth is journaling, like writing is hard.  And habit-forming, as in, you have to do it and make it a habit or you don’t do it and oops, where is that thing again?

And yet, I own at least seven, unused, neatly wrapped moleskins.  Every now and then, I take them out, fondle the unbroken spines (50 Shades of Molekskin anyone?), and wonder if today is the day I will write in one.

Hike Guy's Moleskin Page

Hike Guy’s Moleskin Page

I imagine some of my hangups are the same one my students face when asked to do an essay, rough draft, or even a creative writing piece; after all, the same questions they ask plague me.  What do I write?  How do I start? What if I get it wrong?  What is a good entry? How long should it be? Inevitable, I begin to compare anything I might do to the amazing work of others.  Like this guy, Kolby Kirk, and his amazing hiking journals.  I particularly love how his moleskins are hybrids of writing, mapping, and sketching.  I really like his philosophy that journals should be messy, dirty, interactive things that are free from constriction.  Like rough drafts, but fun.

And then, a thought happens: how could I use journaling in my classroom as a way to help my students become active journalists?  How could I help myself?  Where would one begin?  How would one start?  Could I start? I talk all the time about the value of a rough draft, a good outline, and a working thesis.  These are a lot like messy, dirty, interactive moleskins.  Maybe this is merit in journaling frequently in class, but how could there be proof without being intrusive?  What kind of negotiating would a teacher need?

And then: how do I let go of the part of me that wants to organize, label, and categorize every entry before I even start?  How do my students? Do I grade them?  How do I grade them if I want them to write freely?  Is the act alone enough to warrant a grade?

I almost think with my new project (gamifying the classroom), journaling will become a must- it must become both record book and reflection.  Journal prompts are a whole other issue- I have a love/hate relationship with using journal prompts in the classroom.  While I completely see the merit in a guided prompt, the non-teacher side of me cringes every time I see or use one.  I’m much more likely to use a writing guide, an insert if you will for my students.  I really like Mike Shea’s moleskin insert for writers; making one for high school students would be interesting.

The best start might be my own: unwrapping a moleskin of my very own this week and put the untarnished moleskin issue to rest.  Stay tuned.

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“It’s Alive!” (Kinda).

It’s been a little over two years and I’m in desperate need of an update.  It’s funny re-reading posts from two years ago; I was so trying to be an active blogger.  It’s kinda cute.

And boring.

There. I said it.

I thought about deleting my old posts, but I think they need to stay.  To remind me to be thankful of the past two years.  Rather than tell how I lost hope, how I really struggled to stay in the teaching profession in North Carolina, how lost I really felt in the public school system, I’d rather get right down to the now and the excitement I feel in my teaching career.  Perhaps even re-state some new objectives for this blog.

Here goes.

I’m teaching at an all girls boarding school (independent school, that is) in an entirely different state (Virginia), where I live on campus (it mostly rocks) and teach American literature (on a modular schedule).  And I love it. The school hosts about 300 girls of which 40% board.  There is a diverse mix of international, minority, and local students.  And they are all girls.  My day consists of four 80 minute “blocks” of instruction with some open blocks of 15 minutes in between the instructional blocks.  I don’t teach all four; because I coached field hockey this past fall,  I only teach two.  The last block for every teacher and student is an elective- anything from creative writing to playing on the school softball team.  It’s the first time the school has been on the “mod” schedule.  To me, especially coming from teaching at the university level, it feels a lot like the norm.

I have a lot to share about dorm life, the schedule, adjusting to a new state, and I can’t wait to start the reflection process of that, but mostly I just want to begin anew with this profound personal statement:

I am in love with what I do.  Again. I’m alive and teaching. Again.

This year feels very different than any other year I’ve taught (obvious reasons aside) and it can be attributed to several small things and two big ones.  It’s these two I’d like share and that mold the new objective for this blog.  The first is something I’ve always been into but never quite considered as a part of my profession: technology.  I have always been a computer/playstation/xbox/tech junkie.  I wanted my classroom back in 2006 to be a tech haven; public schools just weren’t there yet.  Neither was I- the english curriculum didn’t seem to need the kind of technology I used at home.  Technology was a learning outcome in my classroom, not a tool.  Years later, and I’m the teacher putting a playstation in my classroom (because girls are gamers too) and using OneNote as our class platform (more later).  Technology is the biggest tool (haha)in my teacher toolbox. I breathe it; I love it.  And the English curriculum is such a natural pairing for all those things I love: games, computers, writing, storytelling.

The second is more of a coming of age via the teacher version.  I am learning to embrace the things that I love to read and disect (StarWars, dystopias, Harry Potter, zombies, Cormac McCarthy, graphic novels…) in my own teaching.  Yes, the canon is important.   However, we should also leave room for things like the American Gothic, the role of philosophy in graphic novels, Asian American identity, ethics as explored in science fiction, readings in queer literature.  I don’t know that I fall into the camp of “it’s a classic so they must read it.”  I’m definitely becoming more of a “if it isn’t relevant anymore, why are we reading it?”  And that has reshaped a lot of who I am as a teacher.

So.  With this in mind, the objective of this blog isn’t to glorify the profession, talk about how to teach the canon, or even present all my successful lesson plans.

This blog is to share in both my success and failures, to examine why or how some things are taught, share some of my nerdy obsesssions, help my students understand my classroom, and help me reflect on me, the teacher.

Mostly, to share, reflect, and learn. And maybe play a game or two.

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Creating New Syllabi

It’s almost two weeks late, but finally complete: the syllabus for the summer course I teach.  This is no small feat: I can crank out a book review, but a syllabus is a careful consideration.  Is it too boring? Will it fit my students? Is there too much reading? Is there too little reading?  Does it match curriculum standards? Is it challenging? A slew of questions attack the moment construction begins.  A good syllabus understands exactly who it is for and what the expected outcomes should be.  But I wonder- how many of my own professors’ syllabi fit this description?  Upon reflection, I think my undergraduate instructors were much more concerned or attuned to how the syllabus was interpreted by students whereas my graduate instructors catered their courses to emphasize their own strengths.  This makes a bit of sense:  graduate instructors understand their audiences are seeking specification (and perhaps even more so, are captive) while the undergraduate is a general study. My own audience for the summer is a fairly more complicated.  How do you teach Debate and Persuasive Rhetoric to the nation’s top 1% of preteens? (I know, a less rhetorical answer involves Bloom’s taxonomy.)

So far, I think I have a great start.  Good thing, class begins in 14 days.

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Teaching at Duke TIP

I’m excited to announce my return to Duke’s Talent Identification Program (TIP) this summer.  Last summer, I was asked to teach creative writing; this time I will be teaching Debate and Rhetoric (“That’s Debateable!”) to some very bright rising 8th and 9th graders.  I was in Davidson, NC last session, which was very convenient to my town of residence.  However, this session finds me flying to Sarasota, FL!  I should be worrying about how to pack two months into two suitcases, but I’m more worried about the course creation.  Creative writing is a bit more lenient in the course material; debate and rhetoric has very specific rules and guidelines.  I am a bit more schooled in rhetoric, but it will be the first time I’ve taught debate.  The textbook decisions were easy: I decided to use the current ones:

How to Write and Give a Speech by Joan Detz

Competitive Debate by Richard Edward

Ripples of Hope by Josh Gottheimer

Robert’s Rules in Plain English by Doris Zimmerman

…but the syllabus and course schedule remain a work in progress. Looks like I’ll at least have some reading to do.

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An Active Practioner

I am constantly telling my students that writing is not just an art, it’s a practice. However, I don’t spend time to talk about how active that philosophy is in my own life.  While this is mostly because time simply isn’t forgiving and there is a lot of material to cover, I’ve been thinking about adding my CV/work to Blackboard.  I’m not sure if this will give validity to my teaching, but it will at least be evidence that I “practice what I preach.”  But then, do I?  It’s been a little over a year since I’ve been actively working on a literary analysis or literary based research.  That doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing; I do regularly-ish contribute to Tropics of Meta (mainly as a review of books; the link takes you to the latest one) and I have created many, many teaching resources for my courses.  I am an active blogger on a personal site.  But what does that mean?  In a growing digital age, can active blogger substitute for active writing?  What does it mean that the institution where I am employed requires students to interact via Blackboard, a digital learning environment, but also demands formal papers?  What would be the most effective way to marry an informal, vastly unorganized digital forum with the old standards of the word document paper?  For my part, I think it comes down to effectively teaching students about audience.

But I digress.

I do have an idea for an info-graphic.  I’ll either have to redefine “active practitioner” or start working on some literary research.

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Old Thoughts, New Beginnings.

I attended my first conference as a college professor last week.  While it was very good, it also reminded me that my own professional blog has been remiss.  I was trying to decide how to begin again, when I thought of my teaching philosophy.  What does it meant to me?  Does it reflect my current beliefs?

And suddenly, I have a place to start.  It’s a good beginning, but it doesn’t include my new experiences with technology, or my new beliefs about rubrics.  But first things first: a review of the old one:


I began my teaching career under North Carolina’s lateral entry program, which means I had to develop a method and teaching philosophy while employed in a North Carolina high school.  I quickly discovered that success as an educator relied more on developing relationships rather than the specific amount of knowledge one might offer a student.  Education policy tends to divide students into various subsets of intellectual, behavioral, and economic factors; these methods of classification sometimes negotiate the student’s identity as an individual.  The successful teacher should balance the mandated material and facilitate a personal exchange between the multi-faceted student and the classroom as a whole.  I began to understand teaching as a lifestyle that put knowledge into action rather than simply covering material in a book.

Various successes and failures in my first months as an educator taught me the unparalleled value in recognizing each student as a complex combination of personality traits.  Each student was a product of individual and shared environment; while knowledge encourages us to view students as unique, knowledge itself must be uniform among many to establish validity.  Twenty-five students could look at the same text and see twenty five different things.  Subsequently, I learned to discover the quirks and personalities of each student and adjust my methods accordingly.  The interaction or give and take between student and teacher created a balance.  Taking effort to learn my students and developing guidelines for classroom mannerisms married my professional responsibilities and allow each student to feel empowered by their diversity.

My educational philosophy is founded on the notion that successful teaching begins by building honest relationships with students.  It is my job as a teacher to assess the skills and talents of students as fairly and honestly as possible.  My evaluation standards should be made available for every graded assignment, that each standard is clear and concise in definition, and that each evaluation is a chance to improve and not a stone solid statement about a student’s potential.  I encourage all my students to use evaluations as a reflection, in hopes of inspiring the direction of their talents.  Finally, because teaching is not a static profession, I will cultivate my ability to remain open to new ideas and experiences.


I’m excited to begin; I hold firm that active reflection makes for a good teacher.

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