Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Partying Like Gatsby

Except we really didn't party like Gatsby. There was no booze, infidelity, bootlegging, or murder. There may have been a slightly broken heart or two and maybe a little carelessness, but it was a party for teenagers, after all. We had tables full of flowers and candles and a perfectly beautiful evening to celebrate the end of the year and, for nearly all of them, the end of me as their English teacher.

After our meal I gave each senior a book that I picked out specially for him or her. And then my students surprised me with a beautiful plant, a gift card to my favorite restaurant, and the real treasure: a journal with a  page or two from each of them. Ah, my heart. To read words like this—I cry every time. I'm crying even as I'm transcribing them from journal to blog:

"I don't hate books as much any more, and I owe it all to you!"
"Words cannot begin to tell you how much you have impacted my life."
"Thank you for not only teaching me all the wonders of literature, but also for teaching me how to be a strong, courageous, confident woman."
"Thank you for teaching me, listening to me, and always leaving your door open for me."
"Thank you for helping me find my voice."
"I really didn't like literature. It has only been presented to me in a shove-it-down-your-throat way by a terrible teacher. Over the years you've shown me what it's like to have a teacher that truly cares."
"You are an incredible teacher, not only because you've given us so much knowledge, but also because you're truly passionate about what and who you teach."
"Your classes have taught me to write better, to write more, and to write freely."
"You have helped me become the woman I am today."
"You taught us to look at life through a new perspective, to find optimism, and clutch the opportunity."

And, the one that always gets me, "O captain, my captain."

Is there any greater joy for a teacher—and for a mom/teacher because one of these students is mine—that to hear these words?

At last night fell, and we gathered on the lawn to watch The Great Gatsby, which was the last novel we studied in class. I'd not yet seen the Leonardo diCaprio version that came out a couple of years ago. I enjoyed it, although it's possible that I like Robert Redford as Gatsby better. I haven't seen that version in 20 years or more, so I can't say for sure; it's just an impression. Regardless, it was a perfect way to spend a warm evening in May.


 I have been so honored and blessed to be their teacher. They are good, good people.

Saturday, May 9, 2015


These past couple of weeks have been filled with lasts, and more lasts are coming along as we head into the graduation countdown…

Their last prom… (And that night also marked their one year together.)

My last day of classes, and for over half of these students, their last day of co-op, ever.

Their last days of high school…

Photo credit: Donna Williams Photography

The last grandchild… well, we think.

My 4th older brother and his wife had their second son, Max, last week. In my family there have been 8 new babies (6 great-grandchildren and 2 grandchildren) born in the past 7 years, and seven of them have been boys. Seven! I love my two boys and all these other boys, but I sure am glad that God blessed me with a girl.

Here she is at all four of her proms.:

Photo credit: Tamyra Parks

Sometimes I still can't believe I have this lovely daughter. My heart is very, very full.

Next up: we're headed to New York City for a senior trip— and then she graduates. In  the meantime, there is a last stack of papers to grade, a last class party,  a last movie night, and who knows what else will crop up. The season for lasts is ending, and we'll start a bunch of firsts again soon.

Linked up on the Weekly Wrap-Up

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Field Trip: Carl Sandburg Home and Thomas Wolfe House

View of the Carl Sandburg House

 My 11th/12th grade Classic Literature class loved our trip to the Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta so much that they begged for another field trip. I wanted to oblige but I also did not want another overnight trip just because of all the arrangements that would need to be made. We're only a couple of hours away from Asheville, North Carolina, so I thought a trip to see the homes of two classic American authors would be perfect.

Before going to Asheville, we did a short unit on lives of authors. I had each student pick a "classic" author and do a short presentation on him or her. The driving question: how does an author's life shape his or her writing? We had everyone from Seuss to Solzhenitsyn, and the presentations included posters and even a wax museum presentation by James Joyce.

James Joyce in the wax museum

I didn't intend to do this biography unit as part of our year, but that's one of the awesome benefits to teaching at a homeschooling co-op: we can be incredibly flexible.

The majority of my students were able to take a whole Thursday to go on our North Carolina trip, so we took three vans full of kids. We were prepared for a day of rain, but fortunately we just had occasional drizzling. Our first stop was the Carl Sandburg House in Flat Rock, NC.


I had made arrangements for a guided tour of the house, grounds, and barn. Fortunately for us, there was a writer-in-residence, Lisa Lopez Snyder, there during our visit. When the tour guide announced that Ms. Snyder would be doing a writing exercise with them, the students gave an audible collective groan (even though I know most of them love creative writing). She had a couple of fantastic exercises for them, and they loved it. I was so appreciate of Ms. Snyder's session— the kids talked about that all the way home.

After the writing session, we had a great tour of Sandburg's home. What really amazed me was not just the staggering number of books that he owned, but that there were pieces of paper bookmarking pages in hundreds of the books. His bookmarks. His flags that "here is something important." Astounding and inspirational to me.

After a chilly picnic lunch, we headed a little north to Asheville. We arrived 30 minutes early for our tour at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial; but since we were the only guests, they were happy to oblige us and start our tour early. After a 22 minute video of Thomas Wolfe's life, we had a fantastic tour guide take us through the house. He had all kinds of great stories about Wolfe and read passages from Look Homeward Angel in various rooms. The kids were a little slap happy at this point, but I think they enjoyed it for the most part. I wish we would have had time to read the whole novel before class, but I just couldn't schedule it.

On the front porch of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Home

We had a couple of free hours when our tour of the Thomas Wolfe house ended, so we let the students explore downtown Asheville for a couple of hours. They split into two groups and went on their way. We three chaperones did the same. Asheville's such a fun little town, with lots of great shops to wander through. We all found fabulous restaurants and then met back at the designated time and place and headed home to Knoxville.

Over half of my students are graduating this year, including my sweet daughter. I've been teaching many of these students since elementary school (creative writing, reader's theatre, literature circles, and essay writing) and several of them for all four years of high school. I am going to miss them so much next year—and I'm so glad we had this one last trip together.

Linked up with the Weekly Wrap-Up

Friday, April 10, 2015

It's April {and that means we're nearly done}

Aaaah. It's so beautiful here in the South. Everything is blooming now or just about to: the dogwoods, redbuds, phlox, lilacs, bleeding hearts, tulips. There's something new nearly every day.

I finished teaching the last novel in both of my literature classes at co-op. For my juniors and seniors, it was the last novel I'll teach them. Ever. And I'm so glad I got to end with The Great Gatsby, which has always been one of my favorite books ever. We're not done with classes yet this year, but the next three weeks will be devoted to various projects.

On the home front, we've been getting things in order for Laurel's graduation. We have her invitations now and are finishing preparing pictures to send in for the senior slide show. This afternoon we have one last photo shoot; this one will be with her and her four best girlfriends who are graduating too. Prom is coming up in a couple of weeks, and then we'll have just one last class at co-op, and she'll have two weeks left of German class at Maryville College. As soon as finals are done, Laurel and I are going to NYC for a week with her boyfriend, who is also graduating, and his mom! We'll get home just a couple of days before graduation, so we have to get everything ready before that.

Duncan is finishing up the last weeks of his classes, too. All of his classes will wrap up the last week of April, and we'll spend our remaining days in May focusing entirely on history. I think he's had a good freshman year in high school. He'd still much rather play video games and run around outside than do schoolwork, but he's developed a rhythm to his days that works well. A little work, a little play.

And I'm adjusting slowly to what will be the next stage of my life: one child left behind. I can't think too much about how they went from this

to this

I just can't.

Soak it up, mamas of little ones. Enjoy those days of sweet kisses and sticky hands. Put down your laptops and read them a story. Kiss the tops of their sweaty heads and fix them pancakes for breakfast. Smell them. Touch them. Squeeze them tight.

And take lots and lots of pictures.

Linked up with the Weekly Wrap-up

Friday, March 27, 2015

Feet in the Sand, Sun on the Face

Aah. For the first time in several years, we all had spring break at the same time. We've had a cold, rainy, snowy, icy winter, so Florida was exactly what we needed. We are so blessed to have generous family members who share their condo with us. We spent four glorious days just soaking in the sunshine, remembering the ocean, eating fabulous food, and watching sunsets. Randy and Duncan also went SCUBA diving one morning while Laurel and I sat by the pool.

It was bliss. I didn't do one single bit of paperwork until the trip back home. I watched a lot of Gilmore Girls and took a few naps, and, of course, I read a lot.

We returned rejuvenated and with still a few days left of spring break.

We started back into our regular swing of things this week, feeling much more focused and relaxed. And now we have only five weeks of co-op classes left and less than two months until Laurel's high school graduation. And six million other things to do in between now and then. We really, really needed that spring break!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Getting Students to Teach: Short Story Group Presentations {Teaching High School}

All good educators know that Seneca's adage "When we teach, we learn" is spot on. This year in my 11th and 12th grade literature class, I wanted the students to really delve into teaching. A whole novel seemed too complex, and I love discussing short stories but often neglect them because of time constraints—so having students teach short stories seemed perfect.

First, a little background. I teach at our homeschooling program, which meets weekly. My class is 1 hour, 20 minutes long. I have 21 students in my class (half of whom have been with me for all 4 years of high school), which is dubbed "Classic Lit." The class is designed to cover some of the classics that I didn't get to teach in British Lit, American Lit, or World Lit.

But this format would work for any literature class. I split the class into 5 groups on the first day of class. These became their in-class working groups as well as their short story presentation groups. I had already chosen 5 short stories, and I randomly assigned the stories to the groups.

When deciding upon stories, I had various considerations, including that the stories needed to be the right length (not too short, not too long); that we wouldn't be reading a novel by this author; that we hadn't discussed the story in a previous year; and that the stories would provide plenty of discussion fodder. I wanted a variety of genres and subjects, too. I ended up with a fairly eclectic mix of stories:
  • "Everything That Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor
  • "The Veldt" by Ray Bradbury
  • "The Man in the Black Suit" by Stephen King
  • "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilmore
  • "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

From there, I assigned presentation dates, fairly evenly sprinkled throughout the year with two groups in the first semester and three in the second. I was hoping, of course, that the students would spend several weeks or even months preparing for their presentations! The reality, however, is that the groups so far all started meeting a couple of weeks before their presentation was actually due.

I use ClassJump to post assignments and other information for my classes. On our site I posted the  Short Story Project Instructions (you can download them using the link) as well as the stories. All of the stories were available online, but I put them in PDFs to make them more easily accessible.

The instructions are too long to post here, but basically the students had four required elements to their presentation:

1. Author biographical information. Who is your author? Give us a biographical sketch of him or her. What else did he or she write? Are there any interesting facts we should know about him or her?

2. Explanation of genre or other pertinent literary information. Is your story science fiction, dystopian, etc. Are there any key terms associated with this type of writing? What was the reaction of the public when this story was published? (This will be a very short section.)

3. Choose one literary lens to look through your story with. Summarize what you think it means to apply your particular lens of choice to this text. How could looking through this particular lens change or illuminate the reading of this story?

4. Discussion. This is really the key component of the class. You will need to read the story carefully to come up with thoughtful, engaging questions and then you’ll facilitate the class discussion.

Each of these points is discussed in detail on the instruction handout. In addition, the groups are encouraged to come up with other activities to explore the story. I gave a list of suggestions, and I've loved what the three groups so far have come up with, from crafts to youtube videos to having their classmates write (and perform) rap songs to acting out alternate endings for the story.

Hat craft  for "Everything That Rises Must Converge" and yellow snacks for "The Yellow Wallpaper"— just a couple examples of how creative kids can be as teachers!

This was a grand experiment, and I have to say that it is an absolute success. Again, you can read all the details on the instruction sheet, but one of the requirements is that the students submit individual evaluations after their presentation.  Their responses convinced me that this is a project I will do every year and in every class. They learned so much and gained tremendous confidence as they stepped into the role of teacher. Here are a few excerpts:

"We quickly figured out that sometimes time constraints will force changes in plans." (Yes! They learned something about flexibility and thinking on your feet!)

"For the most part, we were able to keep the class on topic."(An echo of one of my mantras: "Let's get back on topic. Focus!")

"I think the most fun of the assignment was dissecting the story and figure stuff out about it, even when people dismissed your thoughts about the story. Even though we do this in class often, I like doing it in a less constructed manner. This gives you the freedom to explore your ideas and feelings, not matter how ludicrous, dark, or brilliant these ideas may be."

"I learned a lot from being on the other side of the classroom. I mainly noticed the communication between teachers and students. We teenagers can be disruptive and lack respect, and it was, at times, difficult to calm them so we could teach." (I mean, he just summed up being a high school teacher.)

"Teaching definitely pushed me outside my comfort zone, and I enjoyed getting feedback from my classmates and learning from the experience." (Yes! Stepping out of the zone!)

"I loved being able to put my own spin on [the story] and work with a group to make our vision happen." (And that joy of analyzing literature!)

The biggest problems encountered were, predictably, with group dynamics. Half of the groups worked together beautifully, and half of them wanted to clobber each other. But that was all behind-the-scenes.

"Though our group may not have worked together fantastically, I think we pulled through in the end and got our act together."

"We should have been more cooperative with each other and less dismissive of each other's ideas."

"If I were to do this project again, I'd try to be more persistent in getting everyone in the group to be more involved."

"I learned that your group might not be 'one big happy family.' It was a struggle for me to communicate peacefully with my group, but through the struggle I feel like I learned something that will stay with me throughout my life." 

In the classroom from my perspective, all the groups presented a unified front. The biggest problem the groups had was finding a meeting time outside of the classroom. Perhaps in the future, I will set aside one whole class period as a work day.

The benefits of this project are astounding. As a teacher, I've loved watching the kids take the project seriously and put their own wonderful, unique spins on the assignment. As for the students, not only have the presenters learned more than they can fathom, but the rest of the class has had fun. I've been really impressed with the complete respect that the students show their fellow teacher-students. My role during a presentation, by the way, has been to just sit and listen and really not participate at all. I resist participating in the discussion, and the students seem to naturally rise to calling of a teacher: teach, manage, calm, focus, redirect, teach.

I love this excerpt from one of the evaluations, and I think it really sums up why we even teach:

"The satisfaction of successfully teaching the class outweighs the stresses that were involved in putting it together."

Find the Short Story Project Instructions by clicking on the link. Adjust it to your own classroom, or gather a group of students together if you don't have a classroom, and sit back and watch what amazing teachers our students can be!

 Linked up on The Weekly Wrap-Up

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ice and Snow and 49

My birthday arrived with ice and cold. This is why, growing up in upstate New York, we had "winter break" always during Presidents' Day week. Somebody smart knew that it was better all around to head to Florida for a week in midwinter.

But I am loving this birthday week here, when everything is cancelled. No classes, no church, no swimming. Nowhere to go except snuggled under a blanket, puttering around in the kitchen, playing games with my kids.

I couldn't have asked for a better birthday present than an unexpectedly quiet day, dinner with my family, the most beautiful words in a card from my daughter, and chocolate cake with very thick icing.

This is the kind of February I like.

Well, for a few days anyway. And then those daffodils can bravely attempt another blooming.