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.

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

A Fleeting Glimpse Into the Mind of a Student
Saturday, November 28, 2009

I thought I'd mention something I experienced yesterday. I was talking to some of my students about university and I mentioned something about the amount of effort you have to put into your work in order to succeed. One of my students piped up, "Yeah well, I'm just not trying very hard right now. Once [If] I get into university, I'll probably start trying a lot harder because then it's like my parents are PAYING for me to be there."

Well, that's not so surprising I guess. The downsides to a publicly funded education system.

Jonathan posted at 3:41 PM - Comments (0)

The Ins and Outs of Our Subjects
Sunday, November 22, 2009

We talked in class the other day about breaking down English sentences to their constituent parts (i.e. subject, predicate, etc... basically grammar stuff) and how practically every sentence in the English language is built the same way. It was actually pretty cool. I won't get into the details of it here because it's long, complicated, and took us 2 classes to fully understand, but suffice to say, it was informative, to say the least.

Somebody put their hand up in class and asked about why it's important for us to know about how our sentence structure breaks down since realistically, no one's ever going to walk up to you and insist that you explain to them where you draw the line between a subject and the predicate. I thought I'd write a bit about my take on the matter.

Kate (see: awesome vocal teacher) likened English grammar to Music theory. And in a lot of ways, I think it's a very apt comparison. We study music theory because we understand that there are certain ways we hear sound and there are certain tendencies we expect when we hear music. Music theory helps you understand that there's a reason why a 4th scale degree almost always wants to move down to a 3rd scale degree; why a II chord almost always resolves to a V chord; why parallel fifths tend to make people with any kind of music sensitivity cringe. In the same way, English grammar helps you understand why almost every sentence in the English language is constructed using a fairly consistent way. In a lot of ways, we don't even realize that we've been conditioned to do all this. But if someone were to construct a sentence in a convoluted way, we notice it because it doesn't conform to what we've come to expect from every sentence ever constructed.

On some level, it's an elitist way of thinking. I once went on a long rant about how the song Fireflies by Owl City irks me SO much because they don't resolve their chords properly. For those of you who are interested/those of you who understand music theory, there is a leading tone - a LEADING tone of all things! - that resolves DOWN to the 6th instead of up to the 8ve. It makes me cringe just to hear it. But I've spoken to a variety of other people (non-music people), who don't seem to be bothered by it. And I always have to resist the urge to respond in some sarcastic, elitist fashion about how they're the reason why so much garbage is churned out by popular radio on a daily basis at the expense of my poor ears.

So you may be asking, is it really problematic if it only bothers those who have studied the subject? Well, the response I give to English teachers is this: music notes that don't resolve are similar to people making spelling errors. And lo and behold, suddenly, it's not something to scoff at anymore. English students tend to get highly annoyed by spelling/grammar errors, even if those errors don't detract from our overall ability to understand the message being conveyed. Why? Because English students understand that there are certain rules we're simply supposed to follow when we USE the English language. As a principle, you're supposed to spell your words correctly. That's a given right? Well, the same thing applies to tonal tendencies.

On top of everything, if you STUDY the subject, very often, you'll realize that there's a REASON why we do things a certain way. Resolving notes isn't simply an arbitrary process; neither is sentence construction. They almost always make our lives easier, whether it is psychologically, or practically. You might not think so when you're actually forcing yourself to apply these rules, but the rules are there to make things easier for you, not harder. Without these rules, you wouldn't even be able to read what I'm writing; nor could I be expected to write in such a way that you would understand.

In a lot of ways, it speaks to our fundamental tendency to connect with other human beings. We put systems in place so that we have a common ground off which we can build mutual understanding. Because if you didn't care about other people understanding what you say, sure, you can invent your own grammar and sentence structure if it makes life easier for you. And maybe, if you really wanted, you could teach other people your own rules. But eventually, your ability to touch others stops; your own personal influence can only carry you so far before you need your product (be it music, words, writing, whatnot) to speak for itself.

And for the records, I guarantee you that Owl City, despite being hugely popular now, will not be a band that people will look back upon when they think "the turn of the decade". There's just no way. Not if they don't resolve their chords.

For the record, I actually really like the Owl City album. Garbage lyrics and non-resolved-chords be damned.

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Jonathan posted at 9:05 PM - Comments (1)

On motivating students
Sunday, November 15, 2009

Last month, I began my placement using reasoning that I believed would motivate kids outside of what they had to do for marks. I told them that e.e. cummings’ “i carry your heart with me” could win them any love interest; I told them that their Twitter musings were poetic and that their Facebook profiles were really character profiles of themselves. What I learned in my practicum was that while the above would win over some of the most skeptical of Canadian students, these particular ESL students just didn’t care about those abstractions—they cared about getting marks. To them, a Facebook page would never get them into university, and they had a very difficult time connecting to material that wouldn’t help them get 95%.

The fact that I modified the motivation I gave them does not mean that I believe they are correct in being disdainful or what they see as abstractions; far from it. I will still mention the importance and relevance of the material in English classes to the outside world. However, after all of my careful crafting of interesting, creative activities to test comprehension, to my chagrin, the kids reveled in being given a quiz. So I decided that instead of fighting them, I would continue to give them activities that tested more than their skills at memorization, but remind them that learning and practicing the (to them) less traditional ways of showing their knowledge and understanding of a book would still get them marks and help them in university.

I suppose over the course of my practica in undergrad I got the idea that every lesson had to be wildly creative and fascinating to my students; that everything the students learned had to connect to them on a completely personal level. In that process, I forgot what it felt to be in grade 12, panicking about being accepted into my program and university of choice. These students do look to the teacher to tell them what skills and knowledge will help as they enter the world of academia, so I have begun to give them concrete, detailed reasons as to why they should learn what I teach instead of why they would want to learn it.

In reality, the students were motivated to learn the specific expectations I was teaching them(in one particular case, how to debate) because they knew that they would have to actually use those skills in a summative assignment the week after, and because they knew that in university, they would often be called upon to substantiate their answers in class and come up with rebuttals to their classmates' points. The kids really responded to that and worked very hard on the assignments I gave them. I did still mention, however, that my friends and I enjoyed many hours spent debating and discussing issues that had come up in class or in the reading of a newspaper article, and that with these skills, they might do the same (and perhaps already did). So in the end I integrated some parts of my former teaching philosophy with my newfound method of motivation. 

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Courtney posted at 10:47 PM - Comments (1)

What is Poetry?
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

My friend Christian once wrote this:

"I truly think that learning to write at least half-decent poetry is a major step toward writing excellent prose. You can write good prose without being able to write poetry, and you can likely get toward excellent without it, but I can assure you that being able to write poetry hugely improves your ability in prose."

He didn't really explicate this statement at the time but I recently discovered why this was so. It came about partly because I was writing my own poetry and partly because I was teaching a poetry unit to my class. They had just finished learning about short stories in the unit before so I thought I would tie my poetry unit into that one by turning a poem/ballad into a short story. Thus, I took the song, Your Ex-Lover Is Dead by Stars and spent an entire weekend turning the lyrics from that song into a short story and when I finished, I sat back and looked at the short story I produced.

Now, I'm a fairly concise writer. But I looked at the short story I generated from the song lyrics and thought to myself, "It is amazing that the lyrics to Your Ex-Lover Is Dead can encapsulate, in 3 short verses something that took me 3 pages to write out in short-story format." And then it hit me...

This is why poetry is so important to writing good prose. To quote Coleridge, poetry is "the best words in their best order". I realized this when I was writing my own poetry - in order to produce GOOD poetry, you have to work to ensure that every word is perfect and that the order in which they come is perfect as well. It forces you to come up with the best possible combination of the best possible words. And of course, this is a skill that is essential to writing truly excellent prose. In a sense, you have to put yourself in the same mindset of writing poetry in order to write great prose - something that is easy to neglect because there appears to be less pressure to ensure that every word is perfect in prose.

Prose lets you get away with some things that you wouldn't be able to get away with when you write poetry. Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing. But put it this way. When I write prose, sometimes I write about the environment and the atmosphere of whatever setting about which I am writing. I take the time convey to the reader what my characters are feeling and I explain the circumstances that have led up to the event in question before the "action" starts happening. And because I'm writing prose, I have every right to do this. But poetry - poetry is the ability to write in such a way that all the things I mentioned above are implicit and indicated in the way the "action" unfolds. In order to do that, your words and how they appear have to be perfect and nuanced.

This, I believe, is why writing good poetry is essential to writing great prose. See, you never stop learning as a writer.

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Jonathan posted at 7:58 PM - Comments (0)

On relating to teens and their music
Monday, November 2, 2009

"Popular music has an emotional-intelligence quotient that's geared much toward younger people. It's all about [he flattens his voice to a disaffected teen monotone] 'You left me. Why did you leave me? I still love you. I tried so hard to stop loving you.' And it's like, well, I relate to that, I just don't want to think about that. When you're younger, you want to wallow in it. When you get older, you still love the person, and wonder why they don't love you. You just have other things to do." 

Alec Baldwin.

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Courtney posted at 2:25 PM - Comments (0)