Courtney Langton

Courtney is an aspiring high school teacher. Her teachables are History and English, but she's happy to teach anything that doesn't involve numbers or formulas. Her particular interest is in promoting gender equity and anti-oppression both in and outside the classroom. She writes a detailed To-Do list every morning, and enjoys nothing more than a good book and a plate of bacon on a rainy Saturday.

Jonathan Wong

Jonathan's primary interest is moral education. His teachable subjects are English and Music. He encourages critical thinking and hopes to teach his students to recognize, and strive for, what is truly important to them without forgetting to be compassionate, tolerant, and open-minded along the way. He likes making analogies and his favourite is one that compares life to jumping on a trampoline.

LINKS: Blogger
Canadian Chalkboard
Coffee, Calculations and Colombia!
Progressively Unnecessary
TeacHer Finance
It's Not All Flowers and Sausages
So You Want To Teach?
Classroom Confessions
Teach Hub
Web English Teacher
Blogging the Renaissance

ARCHIVES: June 2009 July 2009 August 2009 September 2009 October 2009 November 2009 December 2009 January 2010 March 2010

The Life Photo Archives
Thursday, August 27, 2009

This woman is one of my biggest teaching inspirations. Not because I knew her, or even because I know of the good work she's done-- I know absolutely nothing about her except what is contained in this picture from 1955. She's an inspiration because this picture of her embodies what I believe about being a teacher, and it reminds me how I should approach each day.

I found Miss Buske in the Life Photo Archives, recently made available on Google. Just search a name, date, or keyword and revel in what gems appear. If you find a photo you particularly love, you can order a framed copy with a click of a button.

Since I'm hoping to teach History, the Life Photo Archives are a big help to me. I'll use them as visual aids of my own, and they'll be invaluable to students doing research projects and presentations for my class. I also plan to have many historical photos and documents mounted on the walls of my classroom-- not to mention my own home, where I have gorgeous 1940s Life ads just waiting to be put up!

What kinds of things are a must-have for your classroom walls?

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Courtney posted at 9:58 PM - Comments (2)

RE: Dress Codes

Here comes the usual mea culpa and explanation for our absence: School starts in 5 days and we're both in the process of packing, moving in, and unpacking. Chaos abounds! 

It's funny that Ashley and Jon should bring up the subject of dress codes, because that exact issue has been plaguing me all summer and especially in the last few weeks as I took advantage of the back-to-school clothing sales.

I remember once scoffing at a teacher of mine who seemed to cycle through the same six to ten outfits all year long. When I told my mom about it, she reminded me that to teachers, school was a job and not necessarily the place for self-expression. She suggested that the teacher in question might have dozens of fabulous outfits, but that she clearly wouldn't be wasting them on her students.

Now that I'm preparing to become a teacher, this concept defines my attitude towards my work outfits. School is not the place to try out new trends or show everyone who I truly am as a person. As a rule, I dress far more conservatively for school than I would anywhere else, including an office building, because I am an authority figure for my young students. I wear things to church that I wouldn't wear to school, because at school I need to be taken seriously, and sadly, an ill-thought-out outfit could jeopardize that.

When I stocked up on professional essentials this summer (on a limited budget, of course), I added the following staples to my wardrobe:

- tailored black suit jacket
- plain black skirt, past knee-length
- two crew-neck sweaters
- soft white button-down shirt
- two cardigans
- two plain shell tanks
- wide-legged, dark-washed tailored jeans
- khaki dress pants

I got most things from the Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic, the go-to stores for teachers. They're classic, affordable, and still cute. I don't completely stifle my personality, of course, but I make sure that any personal touches are subtle and appropriate. For example, one of my sweaters is in my favourite dark, bright pink, and I'll wear vibrant turquoise beads with the white button-down. Anyway, that's pretty much an idea of my teacher-clothes style. Non-fashion people, you can zone back in now.

My biggest issue when it comes to school dress is looking age-appropriate. Ok, not age-appropriate so much as older than the students. Every time I tell someone that I'll be teaching grades eleven and twelve, the reaction is always the same: "But you look like YOU could be a grade eleven or twelve!" I hate being asked for a hall pass or looked at funny because I go to the front of the class instead of sitting down in the back. Usually it's the adults who mistake me for someone younger, since the kids know I'm not dressed anywhere near cool enough to be one of them.

My amazing hairdresser recently helped me out on the looking-professional-and-not-seventeen front. She gave me a stylish, sophisticated (but low-maintenance) haircut, suggested a mature approach to eye makeup, and advised me to take more care with my accessories to make a thoughtful, put-together outfit. I'm not really the kind of person who makes much of an effort with any of those things, save my usual plain necklace/bracelet combo, natural-looking makeup, and occasionally-straightened hair, so being able to bring my look up a notch age-wise is important to me. I don't want to look overdone, but I do want to be taken seriously.

It seems a bit ridiculous to me that as our entire society shills "age-defying beauty," botox, viagra, etc etc, all with the goal of making the user look and feel younger, here I am struggling to do the exact opposite. So I'm making every effort to smile wider and laugh harder, if only to hasten the crows feet and prevent double-takes on Parent-Teacher night. 

We don't start our placements til October, but sometime after we've started in our host schools, we'll post pictures of our teaching clothes to see if you approve or have any tips.

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Courtney posted at 8:24 PM - Comments (2)

Dress Codes
Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ashley, from Canadian Chalkboard gave me the idea of posting about dress codes. I'm a little surprised that we haven't touched on this topic yet but hey, we're doing it now.

When you think back on teachers you've known or seen, you can probably see a large range between what they've worn to school. I, personally, have seen teachers go anywhere between jeans and a t-shirt, to full out business attire (complete with suit and everything). So what does that mean for us young and upcoming teacher candidates?

From what I've been told by various principals (who are normally the ones responsible for the dress code), elementary school teachers have the privilege of having more lax dress codes than high school teachers. I mean, that makes sense; one of the main functions of dressing professionally as a high school teacher is to distinguish yourself from the students so obviously, this is less of an issue in elementary schools.

I've been told that for the most part, as young teachers, we should always err on the side of professionalism. As a guy (Courtney could probably tell you more from the girls side), the most casual attire I wear to prac is a polo shirt and khakis. I have, on a few occasions, worn jeans to teach but those days have always been accompanied by a professional-ish looking sweater. I don't recall ever having worn jeans and a T-shirt to teach. Most teachers/principals would probably tell you that it's not such a good idea, particularly if you're young looking. Generally, as a guy, khakis and a polo shirt is probably as casual as you want go get if you're a young teacher.

On the flip side, I have never been able to bring myself to wear a jacket (of the suit variety I mean). I know some teachers like to do this; I honestly think that it's unnecessary if all you want to do is look professional. If suits are your thing then go right ahead; no one is going to criticize you for looking too professional. I also don't like wearing a tie. That's not to say that I don't wear them during prac. I just don't like them... which translates into me forcing myself to wear them maybe once or twice a week. I personally don't see anything wrong with wearing dress pants, belt, and a dress shirt, sans tie but some people will also say that it looks sloppy.

So for the most part, here is what I've done (and I've yet to hear someone criticize me on my system). Mondays are almost always business attire, sans jacket - that is to say, dress shoes, dress pants, belt, dress shirt, and tie. Fridays are almost always casual - that is to say, polo and khakis. And the rest of the week falls somewhere in between, following in a natural progression. Sometimes I wear a tie on Tuesdays, sometimes I wear a polo shirt on Thursdays. BUT, the one rule I have (if you haven't noticed) is that I always go from more professional to less. It just... works better that way.

Winter/cold weather makes things easier (for me) because professional looking sweaters are more comfortable than ties and you can pretty much substitute one for the other. Right? Because when the weather gets warm and, understandably, you want to wear a short-sleeve dress shirt, I feel like I have to compensate by wearing a tie.

And really, all this is just what I've found works for me. The point is just to make sure you, a. don't look like a student, and b. look like you're a professional. Your demeanor and the way you carry yourself is part of that too. If you walk professionally and talk professionally, no one's really going to notice that you're not wearing a suit. And while we're still young and we're used to caring about fashion, the truth is that you could probably wear the same 3 to 4 sets of clothes every week for the entire year, and nobody would notice. Seriously, the students don't care enough about us to notice what we're wearing. The only exception is if you wear literally the same thing everyday. Then they will notice. And even then, it won't really matter either way.

I should probably stress the demeanor part. Except I don't really know what to say except to reiterate what I said above. Professional behavior is just as much a part of appearing professional as the actual clothes you wear.

I would also like to point out that I'm pretty sure Dr. Morrison wore a suit to every class.

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Jonathan posted at 11:10 PM - Comments (3)

Re: Teen Angst Prevention Methods
Monday, August 17, 2009

I also have an interesting story! It took place during my practicum last year. One of the benefits of having 2 teachers in a class (host teacher + candidate) is that it really allows a lot of flexibility. One such occasion occurred when for some unknown reason, a student in grade 10 Essential English got placed into Ms. V's grade 10 Applied English. He wasn't even doing the same thing as the class... he just had instructions to work quietly at the back of the room. I have no idea how or why this happened but there it was. Well, here's where having a second teacher came in handy. We reworked the seating a bit so Ms. V would teach the Applied class while I worked with this student in a corner.

This is obviously never going to happen but I would just like to say how beneficial it is to teach students 1-on-1. I was "briefed" about him before I started working with him; I can't remember exactly what I was told but something about him not having a great attendance record and not putting in enough effort or some such thing. But here's what ended up happening. He would walk into the class, sit down, and the first thing I did was casually say, "How are things?" and whatever follow-up prompt seemed necessary depending on his reply. Sometimes, he would talk for about 10 minutes before we even got down to work. But I found that once he had said his bit, he always worked very diligently... AND, he never skipped that class.

Now, the point of that illustration was not to toot my own horn. But what I did learn from this experience is that, as Courtney says, it's not that they actually don't want to pay attention. And a lot of the times, it's not like they have some deep, dark secret that's plaguing them (although this does happen). I mean, this student... sometimes he just had some fairly simple stuff on his mind, like what to get his friend for a birthday present. I was convinced, though, that being able to just discuss this birthday present for 5 to 10 minutes meant that he wasn't thinking about it during our actual work period.

I knew I was onto sometime there but I didn't realize it fully until I taught another class under a different teacher. What he (Mr. H.) always did was for the first 5-10 minutes of class having an open discussion at the beginning of every class. I think his first words were always "So, first things first... any news, ideas, going-ons, etc," and I really do believe that that contributed not only to classroom management, but the well-deserved respect he got as well. Now, obviously, his method never elicited any personal issues. But like I said, it's not ALWAYS about personal issues. And it also made his students feel like he cared about what they had to say about anything THEY considered important or interesting. And as Courtney says, that is key. Not only that, but you just may learn a thing or two you didn't know about. And don't think of it as 10 minutes you could have spent cramming in more curriculum stuff. Think of it as the 10 minutes you just saved that you would have had to have spent getting your kids to pay attention. Because I also never had any classroom management problems in Mr. H's class.

Because it really makes it seem like a trade off. We care about what they have to say so they should care about what we have to say. High expectations are important, but you have to let them know that you understand what your high expectations mean. It's not just saying "I expect you all to do well because I 'know' you can" (<-- teachers must be psychic... the things that my teachers claimed to "know" in high school astounded me), it's saying "I expect you to do well because I believe that you have the ability to participate in extra-curriculars, be a good friend, daughter/son, citizen, have a social life, deal with the cosmic natures of life, love, and the universe, and STILL excel in my class".

Eesh, just looking at that list... I'm amazed that they CAN do all that. But they are teenagers. Teenagers can do amazing things.

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Jonathan posted at 9:44 PM - Comments (2)

Teen Angst Prevention Methods

We're in that weird limbo-y time when summer's not quite done and we're beginning to see the new school year on the horizon. We've got a big collection of ideas for future posts, but in a lot of cases we've chosen to hold off on posting until we've started to attend our education classes. We'll even keep a few for the first few days of our practica (not that we'll have any shortage of things to chatter about then). All this to say, we probably won't be having too many "big question" type posts in the next two weeks. But never fear, the challenging stuff will return eventually. Think of it as a last little vacation for your brain.

For now, we wanted to address the topic of teen angst and discuss some strategies to keep it from hijacking your lessons.

Jon is planning to teach middle school, and I've got my heart set on the senior grades of high school (though we'll see what we end up with in a few years...). You remember my post awhile ago about teenagers being world champion whiners? ("But miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiss, nobody CARES what it felt like in the waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar. We just want our cellllllllphones baaaaaack!")

Well, teens and tweens may be prone to over-exaggerated complaining, but it's important to keep in mind that they do still have completely legitimate problems and causes of stress. You remember what it was like to be in grade seven, not sure whether your outfit was trendy or just completely tragic, still figuring out this whole deodorant concept, wondering why fractions just fly out of your head when that cute girl with the sparkly nail polish walks by your desk... and in high school it's even worse. The hormones triple in intensity just when you think you're starting to manage them, you're now having to take on extra-curriculars so you'll get into university, and your boyfriend doesn't understand why you can't talk to him for three hours every night. And I am just scratching the surface of worries and issues that will plague our students and keep them from doing their best in our classes.

It's important to hold your students to a high standard of achievement in your classes, because high school and middle school are the times to learn how to handle several conflicting commitments at once. Think of the struggles you're having in your life right now-- you're nervous about starting a new program, you're juggling your friends and significant others, you're trying desperately to stick to a reasonable budget-- this stuff will always pile up. What you want to do is equip your students with the tools to evaluate and overcome the stresses of adult life.

The most valuable thing you can do as a teacher is care about your students. Help them, teach them, but above all, care about them.

I took a particularly demanding English theory class in my second year of university. It was interesting, though, so most days there was lots of class participation and we all tried to raise our points, even if it was just a question or a statement about our first impressions. One day, as exams were looming, our prof just kept asking questions only to be presented with a sea of blank faces and dead silence. So instead of presenting us with yet another leading question about Lacan, she simply asked, "Are things ok with you guys?"

Tentatively, a hand went up.

"I stayed up all night finishing a paper for another class, and my housemate disturbed my two short hours of sleep this morning by arguing with her boyfriend."
"My parents want me to come home in between exams but I really need to stay here and focus, but they don't understand."
"I'm pretty sure I'm failing stats."
"My boyfriend just broke up with me."

We spent a half hour discussing all the things that were preventing us from focusing during class, and then our professor let us leave early. She later published an article in a journal for university instructors (I couldn't find the link, sorry!) that described that day as an epiphany for her-- when the students aren't responding, it isn't necessarily your material; instead, they could have any number of problems that you just don't know about.

For us, it felt so liberating to get those worries off our chests, and so comforting to know that one of our profs actually cared to listen to our stressed-out rantings. She didn't give us any extensions on our paper or any less readings, but she gave us a small, meaningful hour of mercy when we felt we could barely keep our heads above water.

Now, as a high school or middle school teacher, you can't turn your classroom into a public forum for airing out complaints (cue the whining). But if you see a student really struggling, take them aside and ask them if anything is bothering them. You'll have to be careful to stay professional, but a referral to a counselor or even lending an ear for a few minutes will not only alleviate stress for the student, it'll show them that they're not just another annoying kid to you-- you care about their success.

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Courtney posted at 8:19 PM - Comments (1)

Re: The ESL (ELL) Question
Sunday, August 16, 2009

I'm not sure what the accepted term for learning English as a foreign language is at this very moment, but since my host school calls their courses 'ESL' and I will be teaching some of those courses, I'm just gonna go with ESL for now.

You will have noticed that I'm a few days late in posting my response to Jon. This is not because I'm exceptionally busy (though I am), but because I needed to take a little more time to think about the ESL question. I've never had any experience with teaching ESL before, but now that I'll be spending 3 months teaching it, it's taken on a whole lot more importance for me. So I wanted to do it justice.

I'm fluent in both English and French, and though I can't exactly be said to have a knack for languages per se, I do find it interesting to explore other cultures-- and language naturally becomes a part of that exploration. When I visited Portugal last summer with my best friend (who is Portuguese), I learned a few basic sentences and words before I left and picked up a lot of little things once I was immersed in living with her crazy Portuguese family. I found, to my surprise, that after less than a week I was able to pick out a phrase here and there while they were talking. I couldn't get by on my own with my 100 or so Portuguese words, but I had made a start.

To expect every ESL teacher to be fluent in all the languages of his or her students is nigh on impossible. It would be ideal, certainly, but it's not a very practical expectation. In my opinion, though, you don't have to be fluent to show your students that you appreciate their language and the effort they're making to learn English. 

It's really easy (and quite fun) to reserve one or two periods each semester to have your students teach you. You'll then be able to draw comparisons between the grammar/vocab in Korean, Russian, or Farsi and English to facilitate their understanding. So by all means, research as much as you can on the language and culture of your students-- your teaching will improve by leaps and bounds. That willingness to learn from your students even as they are learning from you is the difference between a good teacher and a great one.

I agree with Jon that another possible roadblock to your students' fluency is that they won't be fully immersed in the English language. It's your job and your responsibility to find ways to bridge those little gaps. Kids love challenges, especially if they're fun, so make a point to assign 'alternative' homework at least once or twice a week. Instead of giving them a worksheet on verb tenses, for example, task them with watching a popular English sitcom and looking up every word they don't understand. Rather than memorizing vocabulary, have them teach their parents and siblings how to call 911 or order a pizza. When you get your students started with exercises that are both fun and useful, they'll keep doing them regardless of whether you've assigned it.

Like Jon, and perhaps some of you, I'm very, very new to the world of ESL. I'm so excited to be learning more about how to work with students who are learning English, and I can't wait to share my experiences on this blog.

Has anyone else taught ESL before? Got any tips or tricks for us?

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Courtney posted at 9:44 AM - Comments (1)

The ESL (ELL) Question
Thursday, August 13, 2009

I'm not sure exactly when ESL got its abbreviation changed to ELL (English Language Learners for those of you who, like me, were late to receive this memo). I remember being told something about ESL being politically incorrect because it presupposes that ESL students only have one primary language before English... even though "English as a Secondary Language" actually doesn't presuppose anything of the sort. As far as I know, you can have a whole plethora of languages that are secondary as long as they're not primary. Or maybe it was actually "English as a Second Language" and that presupposition really was there. In which case, we could have just added the "dary" and it would have worked out without changing the abbreviation. Cue obligatory How I Met Your Mother reference.


No, what I really wanted to talk about was the question of ESL (as I shall continue to refer to it, having proved that it's not really politically incorrect). Or at least, some of the thoughts I've been having about it.

You see, I've been reading one of the books for prof 191. "A Letter to Teachers," not to be confused with "Letters to a Young Teacher" (I think they deliberately did this to test our literacy). The author, Vito Peronne, sounds like he'd get along with Alfie Kohn. They're both ultra-progressive educators who are proponents of grand ideals regarding how education should be. But he mentioned something about other cultures that ties into the whole ESL question.

"There is an enormous shortage of bilingual teachers able to meet constructively the growing numbers of non-English-speaking children in the schools. 'English only' is not an acceptable answer. Support for diverse languages is absolutely essential. Otherwise, we place severe limits on more generations of young men and women."

I haven't yet actually had the experience of being an ESL teacher. And when I do, I don't know how I will feel about the whole issue. On the way hand, it's not like I want to stifle diversity. And I do have a great deal of respect for people who are fluent in more than one language. I often wish I myself were fluent in more than one language (no, I am not deluded enough to consider my Mandarin "fluent"). So to that effect, I do understand where Peronne is going with it.

At the same time, I remember sitting in on an ESL class back in high school during my spare. And I could not help thinking to myself how terrible it must be to be Ms. Brooke, who was also my own grade 12 English teacher (and a great one at that). I don't know if I'd still feel that way now, but that is definitely how I felt back then. Because I realized what was happening was that most of the students were making extremely slow progress; and the REASON for this was because ESL class (and other classes taught in English) was the ONLY time they would ever use English. They wouldn't use it at home, they don't watch English television, all their friends speak the same first language as them. There were 1 or 2 exceptions who had friends that spoke English; their proficiency with the language got so much better simply based on that fact alone. And to me, that has always demonstrated that in order to learn any language, you have to use it, not just in the context of a classroom, but in your daily life as well.

Here's the thing. As an ESL teacher in Canada, your job is to help your students become proficient in English. You can talk all you want about diversity but in the end, this is an English speaking country. And there are students who are simply not proficient enough at English to pass a basic, grade 10 literacy test. When I say "English Only," even if I were teaching a History class or a Civics class, it won't be because I want to stifle their culture, it'll be because they don't need practice with their native language. But they need to practice their English if they are going to live in an English-speaking country. And yes Peronne, the ministry of education sometimes has some crazy, militant policies about what students should or should not know, but basic literacy in English is not unreasonable.

Celebrating diversity is good. But I think there is a risk of forgetting that there's a reason why students are not celebrating their own culture in the country from which their culture originates. If they're here in Canada, part of the education system requires them to be proficient in English (and French to an extent!). It is, as they say, part of the deal when you choose to study here. And as an English teacher, I have already accepted the fact that many of my ESL students will make no effort to improve their English outside the classroom. The least they can do is make the effort within it.

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Jonathan posted at 8:27 PM - Comments (3)

Re: The Phys Ed Question
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ok, full disclosure: I hate gym. I hate gym now, I hated gym in high school, and I feel confident that I will always hate gym on principle even though I'll never have to take it again. I'm bad at every sport imaginable, I was never one of those kids who went off to the park on the weekends (when my mom kicked me outside on nice days, I would sit on the front lawn and read), and I don't really see the point of running around in circles chasing a ball. I played rec soccer for most of my young life, and I have a solid, fairly intense fitness routine in my adult life, but Phys. Ed. classes were always the bane of my existence.

Though I still (clearly) have some pretty strong feelings about the class, now that I'm several years past the mandatory Phys. Ed. age, I can boil that hatred down to three causes:

1. The teachers' attitudes
2. The class content
3. The student hierarchy

Obviously my opinions are based on my own experiences, and I do know that there are many, many exceptions to the negative aspects of gym class. I certainly agree that Phys. Ed should be mandatory, at least in grade 9, because the point of grade 9 is to get a good foundation in as many subjects as possible so students can make an informed choice about what elective subjects to pursue in the future. However, the experience of Phys. Ed. would be much less painful, and the students far more likely to continue to take these classes, if a few changes were made.

1. The teachers' attitudes. I've had a couple of great gym teachers, but the majority have just been grown-up versions of those annoying jocks in high school (to clarify, not all jocks are annoying, but the annoying ones are. I'm sure you know which ones I'm referring to). In an English or Science class, when a student doesn't have an aptitude for the subject, the teacher works with them to help them improve and guides them through activities and assignments that will make the class more enjoyable and relatable. This isn't always the case, but I've never encountered a classroom teacher that showed actual contempt for the students who struggled with their material. Most of my gym teachers, on the other hand, either acted openly disdainful of non-athletic students, or gave up altogether and just ignored the weaker kids. Perhaps this is because Phys. Ed. is not considered to be a class where at least some degree of success is imperative, since half the kids are going to stop taking it as soon as they can. But let me tell you, I wouldn't have stopped taking it so early if I hadn't heard audible sighs of disappointment from my gym teacher every time I attempted the high jump. Really, kids are not stupid. They can tell when you think they're a failure.

2. The class content. You know what I hate more than gym class? Dodge ball. Dodge ball must have been invented by some sadistic, power tripping former bully, because it is one of the most torturous academic experiences for anyone ever labeled as a 'geek.' Seriously, dodge ball? Who in their right mind would ever think that allowing 14-year-olds, with all their teenaged issues and drama, to throw balls at each other as hard as they possibly can is a good or even appropriate idea?? And football? Volleyball? Track? To me, they're all either hopelessly boring or completely impossible.

3. The student hierarchy. I did take gym as an elective in grade 10, to get another French credit, and by that time it wasn't so bad. By grade 10, the bullies had learned that their middle school tactics just didn't fly in this new environment, the awkwardness of puberty was starting to balance out, and we had all had plenty of time to see that our fellow classmates were actually sort of interesting, nuanced human beings. I still didn't love sports, but going to Phys. Ed. was dreaded slightly less than in previous years. On a few occasions, I even had fun. But in grades 6-9, everything is the opposite. Kids are cruel, and in gym class they're given far too much power. There are few things more crushing than having to stand against the wall, stared at by all of your peers, praying that you get picked even second last. Ugh, that horrible pause as the team captain du jour decides which of 3 nerds would be less disastrous to have on their team-- you felt so ashamed you could vomit. I appreciated it when the teacher allowed me or some of my fellow gym-failures to pick teams, but everyone knew he or she was only doing that because we were always picked last. That humiliation, bad enough on its own, was always picked up by the bullies, who made life even worse afterwards. The very nature of Phys. Ed., with it's competitiveness and clear indication of who is skilled and who is not, takes all the awful pre-teen teasing that happens surreptitiously at desks and lockers and brings it out into the open-- even encourages it in some situations.

Alright, that little rant probably told you all as much about my own insecurities and neuroses as it did about the state of Phys. Ed., but if this is still my reaction years afterwards, that's a problem. That being said, I'm just one little nerd with my own nerd opinions, so I'd welcome the perspective of anyone who thinks I'm whiny or lazy or bitter that I'm not perfect at everything. Because yeah, I am all of those things, to a certain degree.

But here's what I think-- to really improve Phys. Ed., give the kids:

1. A supportive, encouraging teacher with a positive attitude toward all students;

2. A curriculum that teaches teamwork and healthy exercise not only through traditional Phys. Ed. sports like football and baseball, but other activities like yoga, pilates, archery, cycling, cricket, rowing, dance, weight-lifting, etc etc etc; and

3. A zero-tolerance policy with regards to bullying or student hierarchy. Pick the teams at random, for heaven's sake!

That's all they really need to make Phys. Ed. not only tolerable, but actually fun-- whether you're a jock or a nerd or somewhere in between.

Since I took a very subjective, personal approach to this topic, I would love to hear dissenting opinions. Or, you know, if you agree that dodge ball is the worst sport imaginable, or if you happen to have anecdotes about how hilariously awful you were in gym class (remember the 20 different times I hit myself on the head with the volleyball? Those were some good times), let me know in the comments.

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Courtney posted at 8:25 AM - Comments (1)

The Phys. Ed. Question
Monday, August 10, 2009

Ah, the age old Phys. Ed. question. First, a story!

When I was in high school, I was twice involved in a debate over the question of whether or not Phys. Ed. should be a mandatory subject past the 9th grade. The first attempt was a complete and utter disaster. Why? Because it involved a bunch of 15 year olds sitting around in an English class, who preferred debating over curricular academia. You can probably guess what happened but I'll say it anyway: the entire thing devolved into a giant shouting match between the athletes vs. the non-athletes.

So much for that attempt. The second one was better. It occurred during a Model (Mock) UN practice session. It was an exercise (<-- ha!) designed to force us into defending views we don't necessarily agree with. The theory being that we're assigned countries at random for the Model UN conferences and although we might not agree with said country's foreign policies, we had to be able to defend them or else face penalization for not being consistent with reality. For example, I was assigned Zimbabwe once. You know that Mugabe character? The one whose policies have been condemned by, oh, THE WORLD? Yeah well, I had to, essentially, be him. So it was a good exercise. Even then, it was an interesting debate. So I thought I'd take today to write about it a bit. I'm sure many of you have already formed your opinions about Phys. Ed. way back in high school. But I thought I'd put forth the essential positions (as I remember them). For and Against Phys. Ed. to be mandatory past the grade of 9 (grade 10 or 11, say).


Exercise is good. There isn't really any debate as to whether or not it's beneficial for people. It improves circulation, concentration and health.

Exercise may be good. But shouldn't that be our choice to make? After all, there are lots of things that are good for us that we aren't forced to do. There aren't very many subjects that are mandatory past grade 9. Why should Phys. Ed. be any more mandatory than French or Geography?

Instead of comparing Phys. Ed. with subjects that are not mandatory, let's look at some that are. English, Math, and Science are the three subjects that are mandatory, to some extent or another, past grade 9. Without getting into a debate as to why these subjects are mandatory, it's fairly safe to say that they're mandatory because they're regarded as "universally" important and thus require further studies beyond grade 9. Is good health and exercise not universally important? Aside from English - mandatory because we acknowledge that being able to communicate is universally important - you would be hard pressed to build a case that says that Physical Education is less universally important than, say, knowing how to factor a quadratic equation. And we stress "universally important" because one of the reasons why certain subjects are no longer mandatory past grade 9 is because we recognize that at that point, students should not be forced to study subjects that they aren't interested in; that certain subjects are useful only to those who are interested in studying it further. But this is not the case for Phys. Ed. No matter who you are, exercise is beneficial to you.

That doesn't change the fact that that should be a choice that is left up to the students. These are decisions about their own lives that they should have a right to make.

Then why have mandatory courses at all? Why not just let them take whatever they want to take? Don't want to learn French? Fine, don't take it. Don't want to learn English? Math? Science? That doesn't work. The reason why we have mandatory courses is because we recognize that certain subjects are important, regardless of whether or not the students are "interested" in learning about them. Just because Phys. Ed. emphasizes physical well-being rather than mental well-being doesn't make it any less important.

And what about the competitiveness in the Phys. Ed. program? It's easy for an athlete to say "Oh, physical health is important so we should have Phys. Ed. past grade 9". They're not the students who are forced to feel self-conscious when they can't keep up with the rest of their classmates.

You're going to have strong students and weak students in every class. Phys. Ed. is not an exception.

It's an exception insofar as it's a class where these differences are most visible to others. There's a reason why we don't publicize everyone's mark in our class. Unless a student chooses to share his/her mark, their achievement in class is strictly confidential. Phys. Ed. is different. You essentially publicize every student's mark every class.

You're honestly convinced that the students in your class don't know where they rank on the academic ladder?

It's not so much that as much as it's not openly publicized. Furthermore, it's less of a social stigma to be weak academically than it is to be the last one in a race or the one who can't score any points in basketball.

That isn't something we can ever know for sure. And even if that were true, then the argument really should be that the faculty of Physical Education needs to undergo reform in order to meet the needs of all students while helping them maintain a healthy, active, lifestyle; that it should be less competitive and stigmatizing, but mandatory nonetheless.


That is the gist of what I seem to recall from high school, diffused among the yelling, screaming, and name-calling (Jock! Nerd! Lazy ass! Muscled-megalomaniac!). That was simply a demonstration, not my own opinion on the matter. For those of you who are dying to hear my opinion, I am secretly of the opinion that Phys. Ed. should be mandatory (not a secret any longer I guess). I recognize that I'm biased, being of the athletic variety, so I'm not a heated proponent of it either way. But if I was forced to choose a side, I do think exercise is important to our general well being and I do think, sometimes, that we need to be forced into doing it until we develop the good habits to do it on our own (<-- this is a sign of a good gym teacher). As usual, I think it's a question of principle. If Phys. Ed. were mandatory and if I were a Phys. Ed. teacher, I think I would try and inspire students into making exercise a part of their life. It's the same thing with English. It might be a mandatory subject but I will be doing my darndest to make my students feel like they would elect to take it anyway if it were optional.

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Jonathan posted at 8:09 PM - Comments (2)

More Comments on 100 Tips for New Teachers
Thursday, August 6, 2009

“Don’t hit the kids and don’t hit on the kids.”

That is brilliant. It's apt, concise, and clever. While Jamie Huston posted his first set of tips right before the beginning of the school year, his second set comes at the end of that school year. So it's interesting just to note that these are 50 more tips he's learned simply by teaching for a year.

One thing I do want to note about this list is that while Courtney and I don't agree with everything, Jamie has at least made it clear that these are his personal opinions and that we should take everything with a grain of salt. So the fact that he is open-minded enough to acknowledge this instantly strikes me favorably and I would like to make a similar reminder to anyone who reads our blog. That being said...

3. Always remember: administrators are politicians. Many, perhaps most, are personable and caring, and try to support you and help students, but nobody ever became an administrator for those reasons. No, people get office jobs because it offers more salary and authority, and any administrator’s first priority will always be protecting their own career. If you ever end up having a serious problem with a parent or student, your administrators might defend you…but don’t count on it. You can like your leaders, but don’t ever trust them. The risk to yourself is too great.

I found this interesting because it's the first time I had ever really heard this kind of comment. I don't have enough knowledge to agree or disagree either way (maybe some of you do) but I think it's something we should keep an eye on during our upcoming year of prac. Or at least think about.

5. Make copies of good and bad examples of student writing (anonymously, of course–scratch out any visible names) that you’ve corrected, and use them in class to show how papers should be edited. Students love this, and it’s a powerful, practical lesson (also, a good routine). Make transparency copies, or see if your school has those new projectors that display normal papers.

This I also find to be a point that could either way. I had a university prof do this once and I do agree, it was helpful. But I wasn't the poor sod whose essay got ripped apart (albeit anonymously). I suppose, even if I was, I'd be ok with it. But I would be. I don't know how other students would respond to seeing their essay on a transparancy and then hearing "Now this... whoo boy... this is how NOT to write an essay!" (<-- don't say this).

8. Be careful about missing days of work. Any plans you leave for a sub will probably be ruined, and if you purposely leave busy work to avoid that problem, it’s still a wasted day for the class.

This I agree with - and I'm sure anyone who's ever experienced having a substitute teacher, either as a student, or a student-teacher, will agree. There have been times when I have simply volunteered to cover my host teacher with an actual lesson during her absence and this has worked just fine. But I have also, in earlier pracs, experienced a class in which the teacher simply left busy work... that did not go over well. This is not to say that you should never take sick days. You know, you gotta do what you gotta do. But the point remains; your absence is not good for the class.

17. Don’t volunteer to be an adviser for any clubs, activities, or teams your first year. These are a lot of work. Schools like to take advantage of new teachers and sell them on running things, but you need to focus on your classroom before investing time in other stuff. I knew one guy who went to a bad school his first year and was given the yearbook and the student newspaper to do. That was a ton of work, and it nearly smothered him. If you have an activity or sport you love, feel free to throw your hat in the ring to run it…your second year teaching.

Eh... I don't know about this one. We've spoken about this before. No, it's not good to overload yourself with work your first year. But I mean, if you really enjoy something, I don't see why you shouldn't go for it. It'll give you a chance to do something with your students that you both enjoy, it might give them a chance to know you as someone other than their heinous English (or Math or Science or whatever) teacher who won't stop trying to get them to write in the active voice.

18. When students come into your room before or after school, the first thing you need to do is prop the door open.

Fact. Let's not forget this one.

24. When a male teacher sees a female student obnoxiously out of dress code, he needs to ask a female colleague to talk to her and take the appropriate action. Men, do not approach this yourself and open yourself up to potential problems or accusations by “noticing” a tube top or short shorts or whatever. Women, please don’t resent having to pick up the slack on this. Actually, you’ll have a better chance of impressing better choices for appearance on these girls than any man would, anyway.

This one is also interesting. I have never been told this before but when I think about it, it's actually probably a good idea. Teaching is one of the only professions I know that can be a lot more difficult for men - and it's because of this kind of stuff. I remember someone coming to talk to us in prof class and she was like "Statistics show that 33% of male teachers get accused/charged with a sexual offense in their lifetime". The guys in the class (all 6 of us) look at each other and we were all like "Hmm... I wonder which 2 of us it'll be". The advice I have always been given, no matter who I talk to, is always better to be safe than sorry.

27. If your room has an intercom or speakers for the school to ring bells or make announcements, see if you can muffle them by taping some foam or padding over them. Those things get loud and they’re irritating.

So I'm supposed to muffle important announcements and the bell that indicates when the class begins and ends. Seriously, how irritating can that actually get? I don't know if I'll be doing this. I... simply see no reason why it's necessary.

32. Don’t be a gum Nazi. It isn’t worth it. Yes, this means there’s a slightly higher chance that some will end up under desks or even on the floor, but that risk just doesn’t justify constant vigilance on your part. You have too much else to do. Yes, get on their case if they blow bubbles or play with it, but the vast majority of kids never will.

There was one time, when I was in high school, where I was "caught" chewing gum. I wasn't chewing it obnoxiously, I wasn't talking with it in my mouth, I wasn't blowing bubbles or anything, I wasn't even chewing with my mouth open. It was the period after lunch and I simply forgot it was there. My teacher (who happened to be a gum nazi), gave me a lecture and I had to clean his boards after school. Before this incident, I always considered him a pretty good teacher. I lost all respect for him. He asked me the next year (grade 12) why I wasn't taking any of his courses (since I was probably one of his best students). I told him I couldn't fit it into my schedule. The real reason? Yeah, the gum incident. Moral of the story. DON'T BE A GUM NAZI. The bad kids do it anyway and the good kids hate the fact that you're an anal retentive. But by all means, if your students are being obnoxious with their gum, hammer down.

35. PC Myth #6: “Multiculturalism is important.” No it isn’t. Maybe minority cultures play an important role in your subject, or a certain part of it, and maybe not. Whichever way happens to be the truth, your subject is what it is. Don’t warp it to suit anyone’s agenda.

Yeah it is. Why? Because when he says "your subject is what it is," what he's really saying is "your subject has been written by the dominant culture/ethnicity that claims to be objective when it really isn't". The agenda has been warped. We are merely unwarping it. Definition of multiculturalism: making sure that each culture gets credit where credit is due. Just because they haven't historically been given credit for the part they play doesn't mean that's how your "subject is".

44. Trail mix, nuts, granola bars, and bottled water are your friends. Keep a stash in your desk.

Every year when I teach, I always forget to bring a bottle of water with me into my first class. I always regret it. Ms. V. says that when you do it for long enough, your body naturally produces a saliva surplus that you automatically use to quench your thirst. I personally prefer a bottle of water. But that's up to you; if you want to salivate into a mug and use it as a fluid reserve... whatever floats your boat.

46. Avoid or be very strict about student presentations using PowerPoint. I know “technology is the wave of the future,” but most of these presentations are mind numbingly dull. Students come to rely on clip art animation and just read text from the screen.

Disclaimer for using Powerpoint in my class: your marks are not based on the number of times your text rolls around the screen before finally coming to a stop.

50. Take all advice with a grain of salt. Though there are simple, established things that are more effective than others (read Marzano’s Classroom Instruction That Works), teaching is still more of an art than a science. Everybody thinks they’re a good teacher, but not everybody’s right. Be skeptical about all experts and even “research” (which is rarely as objective as proponents would like you to think). Yes, this includes my lists. All fifty (or 100 total) of these things will not work for everybody. But many will. Your only two sure guides are common sense and experience. Take good notes, always be open to change, be flexible to responding to the needs of specific classes, and pay attention to everything. You’ll do great.

See, he even includes this in his list.

So in the end, I do have to say that he's less... crotchety after a year of teaching. Either that or he got all his crochety tips out of the way first and these are more learning experiences. But the point is, like he says, we're all going to encouter things that work for us and things that don't. Courtney is right, though. It's only by examining other people's teaching styles do you really understand the strengths and weaknesses of your own.

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Jonathan posted at 8:12 PM - Comments (8)

Our Comments on 100 Tips for New Teachers

Alright, it's time for us to make our opinions known. I'm going to look at Jamie Huston's first 50 tips, and Jon's going to examine the last 50 (mainly because I know he quite enjoys the opening quip).

Before I start though, I wanted to address our habit of encouraging comments even though most of the people who visit our blog prefer to remain solely readers. We don't want anyone to feel like they're being pressured to comment-- we're just as happy for our blog to be a source of information or further discussion with friends as we are to have our comment section as a forum for discussion. So we are going to keep writing posts that allow for outside input, but we'll never take it personally if you'd rather keep your thoughts to yourselves! (that being said... we do love comments if you choose to make them, so don't be shy!)

Since it would be way too time-consuming to mention all 50 of Jamie's tips, we're both going to choose a few of our personal favourites (or least favourites) to comment on. Feel free to mention ones we miss!

50 Things New Teachers Need to Know: Courtney's Two Cents

4. Keep any positive notes from parents. This is such a great way to build your portfolio. And if you've having a particularly bad day, you can open up this file and remind yourself that you're a fantastic teacher.

8. Provide written directions for assignments. I know I preferred to have written directions to an assignment, so this is a good tip. To take it one step further, consider creating a class website where you can post homework, instruction for assignments, and even host a forum to discuss issues relevant to your class outside of school. You might want to try using a resource for creating a class website, like

10. Don't ignore your smartest students. I could not agree more. I hated this when I was in school, and though I was pretty much the definition of a goody-goody, I did act out on occasion if I wasn't being challenged. Instead of having to devote more time to the students who are more advanced, take a quick moment to assign them a specific task or provide them with extra materials. They'll appreciate it and your class won't be disrupted.

12. Inspirational posters are worthless. Ok, this is where Jamie's no-nonsense teaching style clashes a bit with my own more upbeat approach. You should absolutely leave lots of room for student work on your walls, but it is my firm belief that the aesthetics of your classroom can play a supporting role in your efforts to provide a safe, engaging, challenging learning experience for your students. I also think grade twelves should be allowed to indulge their kindergartner side once in awhile. Anyone else agree? Disagree?

16. Hold students accountable to higher standards. I do, however, agree in principle that students should be held to a high standard. I won't necessarily implement this in the same way Jamie has (for example, I do think students should be comfortable in their environment), but I really do think that high school prepares kids for the real world. A corporate executive would never accept a sloppily-written report, and a contractor is going to lose clients if they don't complete the work in a reasonable amount of time. I'd rather my students get penalized for these types of mistakes in high school and avoid risking their careers in whatever field they may choose to work.

18. Whenever possible, segregate boys and girls. To borrow a word from Jamie, this seems like "horsefeathers." Unless you have a specific academic purpose in separating by gender (i.e., you're doing a simulation on the contrasting roles of men and women in 17th-century Quebec), this is unnecessary and ill-advised. Separate kids by interest, ability, or at random, but not by race, gender, or any similar category. That's not to say girls don't work well in an all-female environment, but if that's what you prefer, look into teaching at an all-boys or all-girls school. If you're in a co-ed school, you should be teaching a co-ed class.

20. Every subject should require a lot of memorizing. I disagree. It's fun and useful to have a few poems or facts to trot out 10 years from now at a party, but in the grand scheme of things, it's far, far more important that your students can analyze complex situations and think critically than that they can correctly recite the exact dates of every battle in the War of 1812.

22. Keep blank greeting cards on hand to encourage students. Positive feedback for students? Spectacular idea and something they'll really appreciate. However-- Thomas Kinkade? Surely you can be more creative than that. What kind of 16-year old thrills at the sight of a rustic country cottage? Instead, go for something really cool, like Roadside Diner Greeting Cards or, if you're an English teacher, Jane Austen Note Cards!

25. Avoid group work. I think this is all up to the teacher. I plan to become certified in the Tribes method of teaching, so personally I think group work can be incredibly beneficial. It also goes back to my point about #16, learning to function as an adult in society. We'll agree to disagree.

41. Students don't have to relate to content to learn. Another fundamental teaching style difference for the esteemed Mr. Huston and myself. I guess I fall into the category of "PC" teachers he has little respect for, but I think it makes learning more fun if a kid can make a connection between something he or she might see as stupid or pointless and their own life, which one assumes he or she considers neither stupid nor pointless. I'll still make my students study things they claim not to relate to if it's part of the curriculum and my lesson plan, but I'll make an effort to present things in a way that makes learning fun as often as I can.

47. If you have problems with a student, confer with his/her other teachers. This is smart, and something I might not have thought of myself. You're not alone in your classroom-- the other teachers are there to help you out. Even if a problem student's math teacher doesn't have the answers to your questions, you'll be able to collaborate to find a way to improve the situation and present a united front if parents and administrators become involved.

49. Collect homework as soon as the day starts. I could not agree more. I've pulled the old "I handed it in, you must have lost it" before (very long ago), and I'm not going to fall for that with my students. In my classroom, students will hand in their assignments when they walk in the door and I will make note of who has submitted work within 15 minutes of the class starting. Anyone who has failed to hand something in will be spoken to quietly before the period has ended to inform them of the consequences of their late assignment.

50. Never, ever take any work home with you. I just don't think this is realistic. I'll still have to take work home with me, it's the nature of the job. I'll be volunteering with extra-curriculars and planning lessons for the first several years, so I'll need some time outside of school to do marking. That being said, I'll be very careful to separate my work and home life. If you're stressed at school, the worst possible thing to do is to bring that stress into your only relaxing hours. Do anything you can to preserve your sanity!

I must say, having read through Jamie's tips again, I found more things that I disagreed with than I remembered from the first time around. I appreciate that though, because I really do feel like I have a coherent view of myself as an educator; I know what works for me and what doesn't. Did you have any especially positive or negative reactions to Jamie's first list? Let us know!

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Courtney posted at 7:22 PM - Comments (5)

100 Tips for New Teachers!
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Phew, a week of panic is over-- our blog has been restored! Thank you, good people of Blogger. (we won't get into the fact that it is also their fault it disappeared in the first place...)

We decided that since we're a day off schedule and we've had a busy weekend, we'll do something light today.

But let me tell you, "light" does not mean useless. This is us, after all. During our forced hiatus, we tracked down a gold mine of teaching resources that we can't wait to share with our readers.

To start us off, here are the links to Jamie Huston's teaching blog, Gently Hew Stone. He's been teaching in Las Vegas for 9 years, and his "50 Things New Teachers Need to Know" and "50 More Things New Teachers Need to Know" posts are huge hits on the Internet.

Jamie has a very well-honed teaching style that he's obviously very comfortable with, and it seems to work. His style is quite distinct, and that's why we want to know your thoughts on it. What did you like, what had you never thought of, what struck you as off the mark? Will you implement any of these tips in your classroom? (we guarantee you will!) And given the difference in environment between Nevada and [insert your place of residence here], which of these are particularly well-suited or inappropriate for your future classes?

We'll be back on Thursday to sort out everyone's opinions and analyze Jamie's tips a little more closely. For now, take a close look at the links above and let us know what you think.

PS- And to get you through the rest of the week, here's a little collection of teacher-funny:

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Courtney posted at 8:36 PM - Comments (0)