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
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Coffee, Calculations and Colombia!
Progressively Unnecessary
TeacHer Finance
It's Not All Flowers and Sausages
So You Want To Teach?
Classroom Confessions
Teach Hub
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ARCHIVES: June 2009 July 2009 August 2009 September 2009 October 2009 November 2009 December 2009 January 2010 March 2010

Practicum Wrap-up
Saturday, October 31, 2009

We're really REALLY sorry, by the way, about our lack of posting. Personally, my computer had been eaten alive by a virus for the past few days and I know that Courtney has a comical 5-hour commute. Not that that excuses us (or me at least) but such is life.

But anyhow! I am safely ensconced in my room at Kingston and I just thought I'd let the blogging world know that I'm alive. Overall, the practicum experience was pretty good. It did involve a ridiculous amount of work and I think that is a large part of the reason why teachers get so irked by students who don't pay attention in class. It's like, "I worked for hours on end to design this lesson in an interesting, clear and relevant fashion - you had damn well better pay attention!"

One thing I learn, though, was that the students really do appreciate the hard work you put into your lessons. They don't seem like they do, but I think in the end, they do appreciate what you do. One of the most important rules of being a teacher (I think) is to always remember that no matter what students say about how bored they are or how much "this sucks," they never mean it personally. As teachers, there's a tendency to take it as an attack against you, but I started to realize that it rarely is - especially if they're the kind of students that gripe about everything. And from what I've heard from all the other teacher candidates at my school, most of our students didn't want us to leave. That, in my opinion, is a HUGE compliment.

I had a chance to speak to a substitute teacher during my prac. She told me that she's been a substitute teacher all her life because she's actively chosen not to pursue teaching as a full time career (in the sense of being one teacher at one school). And she said one of the most interesting things about being a substitute teacher is that you always get a chance to gauge your performance based on your students' reaction to your departure. As a full time teacher, your students are the ones who leave you at the end of the year. As a substitute teacher, you leave your students. I never thought about it that way before, but it's an interesting viewpoint, I think.

Finally, I thought I'd leave you all off with a version of what I said to my grade 12 philosophy class on my last day. We had been studying the chapter on ethics. And I summed up my block with this:

I want to say something about “morality,” as it stands, before I head back to Queen’s.

Up until a few years ago, I wasn’t exactly sure about what the difference was between morality and ethics. I mean, like you guys, I recognized that there was a difference – but I didn’t quite know in what way.

We all kinda agree that ethics refers to “right vs. wrong” or “good vs. bad,” right? And Kant created this third qualification that had to do with leading a “good life”. And then we get into the whole issue of what a “good life” means. To some people, it means to experience a great amount of pleasure. To some people, it means living by great principles – Gandhi for instance, we would say led a good life… hardly pleasurable but he DID good.

And so, I realized something during my years at university about the nature of morality or what it means to have or demonstrate moral strength. And to some extent, morality DOES overlap with ethics. There are certain ethical principles that we might consider universally important. But more than that, I realized that moral strength isn’t just about doing “the right thing” as it is defined universally; it also has to do with recognizing what’s important to you… and this might change depending on who you are, but at the end of the day, we all need something to stand for.

University has taught me that the saying, “if you don't stand for something or you will fall for anything” is true in a lot of ways. And if you take nothing else away from my segment of “Ethics,” take this. To be able to recognize and strive for the things in life that are important to you, without forgetting to be compassionate, tolerant, and open-minded along the way… that’s what moral strength is all about.

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Jonathan posted at 9:11 PM - Comments (0)

Academic vs. Applied
Sunday, October 18, 2009

Over the course of the last week, I think I've identified one of the major components that separate the students in the academic stream from the applied stream. I mean, the typical answer one might give to such a question is, "Academic students produce better work than applied students". And yeah, at the end of the day, that is the final measure of their difference. However, I gave some thought to exactly why this occurred on a more fundamental level. Why do academic students produce better work than applied students?

Now, I've always been very iffy about chalking it up to pure intellectual aptitude. That's not to say that I'm not prepared to admit that academic students think at a higher level, but the curriculum is SUPPOSED to cater to that by default. What I mean when I say that is, when you read the ministry guidelines, the academic version of, say, grade 10 English expects more from the students than the applied version. Thus, an applied class is already operating under "reduced" expectations, compared to the academic class. Where the academic stream might require you to understand a concept and then connect it to a broader issue, the applied stream would only require you to understand the concept. If this is true, then the quality of work in an applied class, relative to the expectations, shouldn't be that different than its academic counterpart.

Clearly, though, this isn't true. So there's something else. And I think it boils down to pure and simple effort. I came to realize that students in the applied stream do not try as hard as students in the academic stream. Regardless of the quality of the work they may or may not produce if they actually put their mind to it, the first difference between applied and academic students starts with the fact that the applied students don't always put in that effort. So I thought more about this - about why this might be true - and came to this hypothesis:

Academic students are better able to think long term. Because when you think about why we did what we did in school (since most of us are academic students), it was always about long term benefits. We studied because we wanted to get a good grade. And we wanted to get a good grade because we knew that somehow - even if we weren't completely sure exactly how - it would benefit us in the future. We recognized that not doing well in school was a bad thing, not because it was detrimental to our IMMEDIATE lives - after all, we were pretty sure our parents would feed us and house us regardless of how well we did (some of us at least) - but because we knew it would be detrimental to our future.

This doesn't just apply to the simple drive to do well in class. It also contributed to our ability to understand WHY we studied what we studied. For example, I can tell an academic class that aside from "getting a good grade," it's important to be able to write well because they'll need these writing skills for cover letters, resumes, and written applications, and they will be able to accept that as a reason to write well. I can relate a theme or idea presented in a novel or a short story to a fundamentally important principle like respect, compassion, and open-mindedness, and they will recognize how these principles might be important in the future - even in the immediate future.

Applied students, in my experience, don't think long-term in quite the same way. They tend to be very now-centered. Anything that doesn't affect them in that precise instant, they have a greater tendency to discard as either impractical or something that they'll learn "when they get there". And when you ask them, "but why not just learn it now?" they'll say, "Because I don't need to know it now." And from their point of view, that makes perfect sense. I mean, why learn something now if you don't need it now? Who's to say that we'll definitely need to know it in the future. And even if you were to prove, conclusively, that they'll need to know it in the future, you can still run into a brick wall because the mere fact that it will occur in the future means that it's not important to them at this immediate time.

So there are two basic things I've found that work in an applied class. Material either has to gratify immediately, or it has to be entertaining. The problem is that not everything can be immediately gratifying and entertaining. I mean, this is SCHOOL after all. If it were possible to make every second of every class immediately gratifying and entertaining to every student, we wouldn't have applied classes.

One caveat I've always considered when I teach an applied class is whether or not it would be a different story if it were MY class. Because when you're a student teacher, it almost feels like you're a guest in somebody else's class. That class already has its set way of doing things; students have already formed set impressions about school and work; and you're following somebody else's annual plan. I won't truly know the answer until I actually have my own applied class but for now, these are my thoughts on the nature of the applied class.

Jonathan posted at 6:13 PM - Comments (0)

Bursting Bubbles
Friday, October 16, 2009

Psychologically, something has happened in terms of the way I feel about being on prac. And up until today, I was having trouble making sense of it. But I think it makes sense now thanks to some clarifying discussion with a friend.

As an ex-Con-Ed student, prac was always something I did from May to June. I mean, there were many ways you could have gone about getting your prac done but it made the most sense for me to do it after the university school year. And because of this, prac has always felt like... an extra-curricular of sorts. Right? Because I'd go to Queen's, be a student for 8 monthes, and then after the year was done, I'd turn my attention to prac - in a lot of ways, it was just the first part of my summer job (minus the pay). Now, I'm seeing it a little differently.

Now, prac is actually part of my school year. Instead of being something I did "after school," prac IS school (in more ways than one). And leaving aside how much this has made me miss being at Queen's, the experience of being in schools has taken on a radically different meaning. As my friend Pearl succinctly said, in years past, prac was something I did as a step towards completing my program whereas now, while it's still something I'm doing as a step towards completing a program, it's far more of a step towards the real world.

I never realized how true this was until now - that in years past, I was a student, first and foremost, and prac was something I did in preparation for the future. And for some reason, that made it seem like something I was doing because I was choosing to be responsible (i.e. preparing for my future), not because it was something I NEEDED to do in order to cater to the present (which at the time, was simply being a student). Now that teaching is something I NEED to do, because it takes on immediate significance, it's morphed; in my mind at least, it has.

I was never very good at taking a huge amount of pride in something I HAD to do. Some people have disagreed with me on this before. They tell me that even if you HAVE to do something, you can still take pride in doing it well. While I understand why people feel this way, I don't know that I necessarily do. I always felt that if you have to do something, there is an implicit understanding that it meant you had to do it well. I've only ever felt a truly positive reaction from doing something by choice.

What this has all amounted to is me realizing that I might lose my love for teaching once it becomes a necessary component of my life. Now, that doesn't mean I won't be able to be a good teacher. After all, as I said above, I feel that even a necessary component of my life is worth doing well. But that means that I'm being a good teacher on a principle (that if you're going to be a teacher, you have an obligation to be a good one) not on an innate love for the profession itself. That in itself opens up a whole new problem. In some ways, I had always counted on teaching as being a driving force behind why I do what I do. In other words, it gave meaning to my life. What if I find out that teaching can't do that for me? And I end up in some Zach Braff-like state of Garden-State-esq existence? Like he says, at the end of the film,

So what do we do? What do we do?

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Jonathan posted at 6:36 PM - Comments (1)

A Note on Teaching African-American History and Culture to Canadian ESL Students
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My lessons all went fabulously well today. I got everything done in good time and I felt very comfortable teaching. I’m currently up to teaching 3 classes a day regularly, and while it still feels daunting, I’ve learned that it is manageable. My habit of planning more than one 75-period can handle comes in handy, because now I’ve always got something already planned to use for the next day. It can be a good thing to structure lessons like this on purpose if it curbs your stress level, as long as the students are still getting a balanced, logically-structured class.

In my afternoon classes, we are beginning the study of A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines. The book is about a teacher in 1940s Louisiana, who is charged with the responsibility of preparing a fellow black man to be unjustly executed. It’s a very moving novel, rife with ideas about racism in the American South.

To understand those important ideas, a reader needs to have some sort of background on African-American history and culture. As recent immigrants to Canada, my students are unfamiliar with many of the events and people in history who have shaped the Black identity in the United States. It was (and is) my job to make sure they begin to understand what it might have been like to live the way the characters in the novel do.

I began with a brainstorming session to assess what my students already knew about African-American culture. This is a really good activity for ESL students, because it shows you what background they have in a subject coming into a lesson, and it helps them visualize the ideas you’re discussing. As well, the shyer students know they won’t be judged and are thus more likely to speak up.

Our brainstorming sessions resulted in answers such as racism, President Obama, human rights, slavery, torture, hip-hop/rap, and discrimination. All of the terms brought up issues we will be exploring in the coming weeks, and I was able to address most of them almost immediately. It also showed me that the kids had some idea of what being African-American meant, which I will be building on for the rest of the unit. Remembering the ideas brought up in the brainstorming session is helpful when planning the rest of your lessons, since it builds on your students’ pre-existing knowledge—classic scaffolding a la Vygotsky!

After brainstorming, I handed out a timeline that my associate teacher had prepared in a previous year, and we went over it together in class. I made frequent reference to concepts that the kids had studied before (we recently read a poem about the segregation of Chinese-Canadians on trains, so that helped) and did by best History-teacher bringing events to life schpiel. If I had to do it again, I would show them a video on Black History. It’s much more exciting to see the pictures and video than to listen to the teacher talk, and the issue would have automatically become more vivid for them. A potential problem with a video is their comprehension rate—I do try to speak slower than usual, so a video might be too fast. But nonetheless, I think the video would be more powerful. Even if a few terms were missed, the images would speak for themselves.

Tomorrow we’re going to go over terms and discuss the use of language in the novel (the n-word is used fairly frequently, plus the author uses phonetic spelling for black Louisiana accents). I think I’ll spend part of tonight trying to track down a comprehensive video about African-American history. If I find something I like, I’ll show it in class tomorrow to enhance my descriptions.

Got any good African-American History resources? Share ‘em!

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Courtney posted at 9:18 PM - Comments (1)

Updates on Prac: Unit Planning and Teaching for ESL

We've reached one of our first milestones of being a student teacher-- having an overly optimistic bubble burst. Namely, that we'd be happily blogging away about new information every night, or at least twice a week. We figured even in the stressiest of times, we'd still manage to eke out a few scattered lines about this or that educational theory.

Turns out that doesn't happen so much. Instead, I sit here on the bus home, laptop sliding all over the place, trying to write an update on my life with only 12 minutes of battery left. So real life doesn't exactly go according to plan-- a good lesson to learn early!

I'm feeling a lot better about my lessons now that I'm beginning my unit. I've broken down my classes into more manageable parts (for the students and me). I'm including time for reading in class, since we're sort of racing through a book in less than 3 weeks. I'm including a lot of group work and fun(ish) comprehension activities so I don't feel like I'm quizzing them into oblivion. I'm sure they'll appreciate that.

The group work and individual activities are crucial for an ESL class. My associate teacher has a great relationship with his students and is able to have mostly conversational-style lectures, but he's an anomaly. I need to focus on tailoring my lessons to students with a strong, but not perfect grasp on the English language.

On Thursday, my prof is coming to sit in on one of my classes, so I'm gearing up to make the lesson extra-thorough for him. I've also got a formative assessment on Friday, where my associate teacher and I both evaluate how I'm doing so far.

Overall, I'm learning a lot and I'm enjoying being able to learn and experiment with my teaching strategies. I'm still not sure whether I'll have an ESL practicum again in the second and third blocks, so I'm going to take advantage of this experience while I can.

Anyone have any tips for ESL teachers? My students are transitioning into an Academic English class next semester, but they still have challenges with learning in English.

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Courtney posted at 9:15 PM - Comments (0)

More reflection on prac
Friday, October 9, 2009

Something’s not clicking with my teaching, and I’m not sure what. I certainly don’t know how to fix it.

I’ve thought of myself as a teacher for such a long time; I’ve always gotten positive feedback from teachers, students and profs, and I’ve never found lesson planning or execution all that difficult.

Nothing’s changed, really, except the feeling I have when I finish teaching. It jut doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel like a success.

Admitedly, today’s two lessons both came up short on time, leaving me with a game as filler. I wasn’t unprepared for the possibility of extra time, but it still looks a little dodgy when you’re starting a game with 10 minutes left in class.

The fact that I was left with all this time is a little baffling, since I was initially worried that I wouldn’t have enough time. I had so many interesting activities and things to discuss that I rushed through them and ended up going faster than I should have.

I also think I may be planning too much and relying too much on my lesson. My associate teacher just sort of walks in and does his thing, and it works perfectly for him. He has way more structure than I do, and he usually decides what he’ll teach on the spot. Of course, he has a unit plan, while so far I’ve just been teaching filler lessons while my associate teacher marks papers or goes to meetings.

I think another problem with my lessons is that I’m using the same techniques that have worked so well with the kids I’ve taught before. ESL is a completely different medium of teaching, one I’m beginning to be familiar with, but one that I certainly haven’t fully figured out yet. I lecture too much, but then I try to have discussions and it just doesn’t take off the way it would in another class. I’ll be shifting towards more visuals as much as I can, but I also have to be careful about group work, because these classes have the tendency to get out of hand easily.

It’s not all bad, though. My goal for this lesson was to have one or two kids leave the room with a real sense of how beautiful poetry can be, and how their own thoughts and experiences ultimately determine what the poem means to them—and I did that for at least four or five kids. While it’s great to have that handful of kids in the class who thrive off the things you’re teaching and how you teach them, sometimes those other blank (or sleeping) faces overpower the memory of the few students who really got it.

I’m not trying to be too hard with myself; I’m trying to get a better perspective on the skills and strategies on which I can improve. I’m starting a full 3-week unit on Tuesday (since Monday is a day off for Thanksgiving here in Canada), and I want it to benefit from these practice lessons. I’ll have a nice long session with my associate teacher, pick up some specific things to work on, and hopefully become more confident that I’m going in the right direction.

I know we’ve all had (or are currently having) some setbacks in the realm of teaching—share with us in the comments!


Courtney posted at 11:38 AM - Comments (0)

Re: First Impressions - The Prac Edition
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Well, my ridiculous commute put me through the wringer in a big way the past two days, but things are finally starting to get ironed out now. As of today, I'm proud to say that I didn't return home wanting to collapse in a puddle of exhaustion! Thank heavens for small victories.

I've started leading extended activities, marking presentations and doing one-on-one essay help already, but tomorrow will be my first full official classes as a teacher candidate. I'm teaching a lesson on poetry analysis, specifically looking at e.e. cummings, and I couldn't be more excited about it. e.e. cummings is real, rich poetry, the kind of poetry that makes you cry and makes you appreciate all other poems, and I want the kids to see that. My only goal for this lesson (it's actually two sections of the same class, which is helpful for honing my skills and strategies) is for my ESL students to leave the room feeling that poetry matters, that someone out there took the crazy, confusing, impossible feelings they feel every day and turned them into something beautiful. 

I'm got some good creative activities and I'm working around their reluctance to participate in class discussions by giving them time to write down their thoughts before they have to share them, so we'll see how that works tomorrow. I do find that I'm my own harshest critic when it comes to teaching, but I also think that by identifying my mistakes I can learn from them right away and modify my teaching. When you have the same course two periods in a row, learning from your mistakes becomes very convenient!

I did initially feel like my prac was just a repeat of being in a ConEd placement, but that feeling is fading as I'm getting more responsibility. I also wish I could stay a bit longer in the afternoons and come in earlier in the mornings, but alas, I'm bound by the bus schedules. I definitely could not survive this month without my wonderful boyfriend and his support, coffee-making, dinner-cooking, etc etc.  

It does look like there's a possibility that I might be at another school for my second and third blocks, since History is my main teachable and apparently there may not be anyone willing to take me on at my current school. That's another game of wait and see, I suppose. On the one hand, I would loooove to be somewhere closer to home; on the other hand, I really like my school, my associate teacher, and the ESL program-- and the ESL experience is what will really make or break the job hunt.

Anyway, those are the crazy things that have occurred in the last three days! In the next three weeks I'll be teaching a unit on Fast Food Nation, which should yield some really fun resources and activities.

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Courtney posted at 8:15 PM - Comments (0)

First Impressions - The Prac Edition
Monday, October 5, 2009

I was supposed to leave the house at 7:15 this morning. I woke up at 7:30. A rather dubious start to what amounts to be a rather important segment of my professional career. Fortunately, I still managed to get to school 20 minutes before the bell rang so there's "the first glitch" ticked off my "things that will inevitably happen to the best of us" list.

As with every school I've taught at, the first day has made me extremely tired due to the large intake of new information. We also coincidentally had a staff meeting after school so the day was prolonged even further than one might expect. The good news is that I've pretty much got my English plan laid out: I'm teaching the entire poetry block this round, followed by Lord of the Flies in November/December. I'm probably going to sprinkle in some grade 12 philosophy here and there. Music, apparently, will have to wait until the winter term so this means I won't be doing my third block in a grade 7/8 class. Slightly disappointing but something I can live with.

I also never really know exactly how much we're supposed to do during the times when our host teacher is conducting a lesson. I usually stick to the "just sit on the side and observe" tactic because I worry that I might cramp his/her style if I say anything. This also usually means that when it comes time for me to teach my lessons, my host teachers tend to stay off to the side as well. At the same time, I then worry that I should be doing something useful with myself. I mean, I am doing something useful: I'm following the lesson because I want to ensure that I understand what I can expect from my students as far as prior knowledge when it comes time for me to teach. But that's not really observable. So far, I've not actually had any problems with what I've been doing but you never know.

All in all, it was a fairly typical first day (minus the fact that I didn't arrive notoriously early like I am wont to do on first days). In fact, it went almost exactly like how my other practicums have gone. And it's kinda funny that way. The faculty of education made this year's practicum sound so different from the ones we've had in the past - all that stuff about formative and summative assessment, having a strict progressive schedule, the three-hour team meetings - but now that I'm actually in the school, it feels exactly like every other prac I've ever had. In fact, I daresay it sounds like my workload for this first block will be even lighter than my workload in previous practicums. Second semester, when I'm full-on teaching grade 12 English and Music, 3 periods a day... that might be a different story.

Jonathan posted at 6:14 PM - Comments (3)

Teaching Philosophy
Saturday, October 3, 2009

We'll panic about the upcoming practicum tomorrow. But for now, I thought I'd post something a little more positive. One of our recent assignments for teacher's college was to write up our teaching philosophy. Here is mine followed by an explication of it:

I once wrote a précis on what I considered to be my educational philosophy and this is what I came up with:

“I want my students to recognize, and strive for, what is truly important to them without forgetting to be compassionate, tolerant, and open-minded along the way.”

That statement still holds true for me and I believe that even a lengthier exposition will ultimately have that statement at its core. In many ways, I would like to consider myself a moral educator inasmuch as I am an educator in my actual teaching subjects – English and Music – because I believe that it is important for students to be good people, regardless of what they study.

I think students are capable of amazing things. Part of my teaching philosophy is to facilitate and inspire students to speak up if they have something to say and to express themselves in such a way that is clear and interesting. I hope to model this behaviour by being as clear and interesting as I can when I express myself in the classroom. Furthermore, I want my students to discover what is important to them because I think everyone needs to believe in something. There is saying that goes, “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything,” and this is something I take to heart. I believe that the world can be a better place; and it starts with my students. That is why I’m a teacher.

In a lot of ways, my teaching philosophy relates very easily to my teachable subjects: English and Music. The study of English, in a very compact nutshell, is about how we communicate. It is about how we use the English language to convey ideas – through dialogue, poems, speeches, essays, and plays – in ways that are both affective and effective. I also think that we study Music because it inspires us and I also see it as an opportunity for expression, only through sound rather than words.

The more you know, the more interesting you can be. That is as good of a reason for lifelong learning as any other. I hope to focus my teaching on making connections through everything my students learn so that they understand why it is important to keep informed. But as stated in my précis, all the knowledge and drive in the world won’t be anything to be proud of unless my students are fundamentally good people as well. To respect and support one another; to empathize; to trust; to forgive; to be compassionate, tolerant, and open-minded… these perspectives are central to the kind of educator I hope to be, as idealistic as that may sound.

Now that I read it again, it reads a little funny. But I think that that's mainly a result of me writing a philosophy in response to certain topics they wanted you to touch upon. The general gist of it is this: I want to teach my students good principles. See, there's so much talk going on in all my classes about "what we should teach our students" and then arguments ensue over why we need to learn Shakespeare or how the world is changing so fast that a lot of what we teach our students will lose relevance by the time they hit "the real world". Even if that's true, I feel like there are some things that don't change with time. 20 years from now...

You should still strive to be interesting.
You should still strive to be clear.
You should still strive to be respectful.
You should still strive to be kind, compassionate, tolerant, and open-minded.
People will still appreciate music and it will still inspire us.
A V-chord will still sound nice when it resolves to a I-chord.
Spelling mistakes will still make you look like you don't know what you're talking about.
Being a parent will still be the hardest and most important job in our society.
We will still want to be accepted.
You will still fall for anything if you don't stand for something.

Maybe our job isn't so useless after all.

Jonathan posted at 2:33 PM - Comments (0)