Category Archives: Summer Blogging Project

The one thing I can do

I’m sure you don’t need me to point this out, but we’re having a tragically terrible summer. More innocent black Americans have been killed by the police, the police in turn have been targeted and murdered, the Leave camp won the Brexit referendum, a terrorist murdered 84 people in Nice, France, the Rio Olympics are likely to be a zika-virus/Russian-doping/inept-government disaster, and there was just a failed coup attempt in Turkey. The upcoming election in the US is a source of dreadful angst. The stock market is at an all-time high, but with bond yields at record lows, this is not a source of comfort or optimism. Essentially, all the news is bad news, and it’s hard not to take it to heart.

Sure, the summer months are always filled with unrest, and since I’m on vacation and have more time to pay attention to the news, world events weigh more heavily on me. Normally the Olympics would be a delightful diversion since the Columbia fencing team always sends some great representatives to the games (this year there is the amazing Nzingha Prescod to cheer on), but I can’t help feeling like the games in Rio may be the economic and human-rights disaster that finally seals the coffin for the whole modern Olympic movement.

When things get this bad, I ask myself, “What should I be doing to help heal the world?” Should I be marching in protests? (Yes, I’ve got the time.) Volunteering at a shelter or soup kitchen? (Yes, although the logistics are tough with an infant in the family.) Running for political office? (I have little faith that I could make a difference in our current system.) But then I remember: I’m already doing the one, best thing I can to help make a better future. I work at a school.

The world of the present is seemingly unredeemable, or, if it can be fixed, it will take powers well beyond my small influence. But the world of the future is very much in my hands (and yours!), and working as a teacher is the strongest commitment I can make to construct a less discordant tomorrow. It’s times like these that I take pride and feel relief that I work at an institution devoted to the Quaker ideals of peace and equality. The world needs a lot more of both, and education is how we will get there.

Although I’m about to retreat to a cabin in the woods in Vermont for the next month, I’ll still be managing George School’s rising sophomores’ summer reading and blogging project. Some prescient colleagues selected The Other Wes Moore as the required text for the rising sophs, plus our school is doing a community-wide “one book” reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Thus, even though I and our students are on vacation, we are still at work pollinating our minds with narratives that broaden our understanding of injustice and discrimination in the US. After a year off from the classroom, I’ll be teaching one section of sophomore English next year (AP Language and Composition), so I need to reflect and plan carefully how I can address these two powerful books in the opening week of the school year.

Merlyn’s speech about the power of learning as the best cure for boredom (and all the other ills of the world) from The Once and Future King has been over-popularized lately, but I feel a special closeness to it since I taught the book for seven years. Also, I read Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk this year, and T.H. White looms in the background throughout the book. Every time we return to a work of art, or a text, we bring a slightly different set of life experiences and find ourselves noticing nuances that escaped us on previous viewings. The piece of Merlyn’s speech that jumps out at me today is, “you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics,” which always struck me as too strongly worded in the past. The world I grew up in, despite the Cold War that was going on, seemed lacking in evil lunatics. The world of 2016 seems to have an overabundance of them. Time to take Merlyn’s advice and focus on learning (and, in my case, teaching). Luckily, it’s the one thing I can do.


Some book recommendations for the rising sophomores

Members of our Class of ’19 (rising sophomores) have a summer reading assignment for English to read The Other Wes Moore and write five blog posts about it. Additionally, they must read one other book of their choice from a list of authors/works compiled by the department. The list can be found here. Since the list is long and a little chaotic, I thought I’d give some recommendations.

Each year over Winter Break, I like to read books from the NYTimes “10 Best Books” list. Two books from The 10 Best Books of 2015 that I read over break made it onto the summer reading list: Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories and Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk. I loved both books, but it is the Berlin collection that has really stayed with me. It is long, and since she returns to the same themes often, some of the stories feel repetitive. However, the investment in time is well worth the effort, and any young writer interested in writing short stories in an autobiographical mode should consider picking up that collection. You’ll notice that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is also on the NYTimes Best of 2015 list. I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but the entire faculty is reading it this summer, so stay tuned.

There are a lot of other authors on the list for the rising sophomores that my English department colleagues recommended, and whom I adore and enthusiastically endorse. We put Evelyn Waugh on there. My two favorite books by Waugh are Scoop and A Handful of Dust. Scoop is a satire about the media and journalism, and it is as funny and fresh today as it was when it was written (1938). I taught it one summer about seventeen years ago when I was teaching summer school at Hun, and I’ve often thought about teaching it again. The Modern Library Association put three novels by Waugh on their 100 Best Novels list, the two I mentioned plus the over-hyped Brideshead Revisited. Back at the turn of the millenium, I made a project of trying to read all 100 novels on their (just-published) list, but I only made it through about 80 of them before I gave up. Go ahead, call me a quitter!

A few books that we recommended last summer and the summer before (when the blogging assignment was different and students only had five books to choose from) have reappeared on this year’s list. I strongly recommend Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. They are two of the best novels written in the last decade, and rising sophomore bloggers who have written about them over the last few summers have enjoyed them immensely. The Art of Fielding is great if you happen to be a baseball fan, but it is funny and brilliant and can be enjoyed by anyone. Wolf Hall is perfect for readers who enjoy historical fiction. It is set in the England of Henry VIII, and it has spun off an entire industry of TV shows, stage adaptations, etc. Read it! (And then read the sequel, Bringing Up the Bodies, and get ready for the final book of the trilogy, which is coming soon.)

I was a fantasy and sci-fi fanboy in my younger years, and we put some great options on the list. I’m not particularly a fan of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, but it’s there if you want to go in that direction. (I read the first six books in the series, or something like that, in high school and college, and I admit that peoples’ tastes change over time. I find his work too derivative now.) I’d rather see you get to know the work of Terry Pratchett, who died in 2015, and who is one of the funniest fantasy writers of all time. (The Discworld series is the obvious starting point.) We also put Philip K. Dick on the list, and his writing is so influential, eerie, and intelligent that I would encourage everyone to read him. I guess I would recommend Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as a starting point, but I like VALIS, too.

Finally, you’ll see that Raymond Chandler is on the list, and you pretty much have to read Chandler if you want to call yourself a well-read citizen of the planet. Start with The Big Sleep, and then read The Long Goodbye. His detective stories don’t ever quite make sense, but the pleasure is in Chandler’s style, and the atmosphere, and the wonderful narrative voice of his protagonist, Philip Marlowe. High school students often try to write in this genre, so it is a good idea to feed yourself the roots of great detective fiction.

Disagree with my recommendations? Have some recommendations of your own? Leave a comment!


Summer Blogging Assignment, Year 3

For the third summer in row, George School’s rising sophomore class will be blogging about their summer reading assignment for their English classes. The assignment has evolved over time, and this year we are keeping it simple by just doing one “track.” In the past two years, we’ve allowed students to blog synchronously or asynchronously, but the synchronous track never quite lived up to its potential, so everyone is free to post whenever they want this summer. (Students need to have five posts up by Labor Day, which gives a lot of rope to procrastinators, but I have always wanted to protect students who go away to camp for eight weeks and try to stay away from technological distractions.)

Since I was completely out of the classroom this past year, I actually expected the assignment to die, and I’m hugely grateful to my colleagues for keeping it alive. I’ll be teaching one section of sophomore English next year, so I’m back in the saddle as a co-manager for the project. My colleagues decided that every student would read one book in common, plus they would have a choice of a second book. With the AP Language and Composition curriculum orienting us towards non-fiction, the grade-wide text that was chosen is The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. I had read the NYTimes review back when the book was published, and it intrigued me and I wanted to read it, but I never got around to it. So I’m just finishing the book now (having started a month ago; I’m a new dad — give me a break!), and it was clearly an inspired choice. The entire GS community is also reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me this summer, and the two books have a lot in common. We will have some powerful discussions come September!

While the texts are important, the tech is, too. I pitched the department on this summer blogging assignment two years ago because I wanted to help the school move forward in its use of academic technology, and I learned from my #edtechchat and #engchat PLNs that English teachers everywhere were asking their students to blog. I piloted a modest blogging initiative in my own classes, but I realized that we needed to do more school-wide. The beauty of this assignment is that every sophomore begins his or her year with an academic blog that they have made for this purpose, but it can be quickly repurposed by any teacher who wants their students to do some reflective journaling, or post a portfolio online, etc. Now that we are going into Year 3, every student at GS in 10th, 11th, or 12th grade will have an academic blog that any teacher can adopt for assignments in their class. (Okay, new 11th graders won’t, but that is a small population.) We give the 9th graders a year to learn our school’s values and build community offline before asking them to intentionally build community online, and hopefully that leads to respectful digital citizenship.

In past years I’ve used my blog to post links to some great writing by our rising sophomores done specifically for this assignment. Check back in the coming days and weeks!

Gimme Summer Readin’

Year Two of the big summer blogging project begins next Monday. Like last year, all of George Schools’ rising sophomores are required to read a novel (from a short list of options) and a poetry anthology. Then they must blog about their reading. In the spirit of shared intellectual activity and plain old fairness, here’s how my summer reading is going so far.

As soon as exams were over, I began reading Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality by Jacob Tomsky. It seems like I’ve been staying in hotels more often in recent years, and I’ve wanted to know more about the industry. Tomsky’s memoir is a funny and fast-paced insider’s view of life as a hotel employee, and I tore through it in a couple of days. Tomsky is a personable narrator for a fellow liberal arts major like me, and he leaves the reader with a lot of practical advice on how to appeal to (and not piss off) a hotel’s staff. How useful was it? Well, I took Tomsky’s advice when I checked into a hotel (that shall remain nameless) in Baltimore this past Friday night. I slipped the desk jockey a $20 “just for you” as I was giving him my credit card and ID, and my wife and I received an incredible upgrade in return. If you like to travel and have ever wondered about hotel work, read the book.

After I finished that, I read Steve Osborne’s The Job: True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop. The book received a positive review in The New Yorker, and it sounded like the kind of thing that I would like. (I love old reruns of Law and Order: Criminal Intent.) Osborne’s style is direct and matter of fact, but he is a gifted story-teller, and he makes you feel like you are riding along with him on patrol in NYC in the bad old days before Giuliani was elected and the crime rate plummeted. Although most of the book focuses on Osborne’s early years on the job, the last third of the book has the most heart-wrenching stories. You’ll fight back tears reading about the death of Osborne’s dog, the death of his father (also a cop), and 9/11.

Now I’ve just begun reading On Such a Full Sea by Chang Rae Lee. This dystopian novel was selected by a colleague of mine for the summer blogging project, and it is one of the books the rising sophomores can choose from for the assignment. I need to read all of the options so that I can interact with the students via the Comments section of their blogs, and I don’t want to pretend that I’ve read a book when I haven’t. Last year this same colleague selected Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses, so I had to read that in a hurry. Chang Rae Lee actually came and did an assembly here at George School a couple of years ago, and he read passages from On Such a Full Sea right before it was published. It is interesting for me to read a dystopian novel right now because the last novel I read with my freshmen this spring was Brave New World. Huxley has a better sense of humor than Lee, but I actually find myself more often comparing On Such a Full Sea to William Gibson’s The Peripheral, which I read this winter. I suppose there is a distinction to be made between a “literary” dystopian novel and Gibson’s futuristic sci-fi, but for this reader, Gibson makes the future a whole lot more interesting, believable, and fun, yet he sacrifices none of the cautionary aspect in return. Gibson loves the details of culture — such as music, fashion, brands, retail, technology, transportation — that Lee glosses over or hasn’t fully thought through. I’ll read On Such a Full Sea to completion, but I recommend The Peripheral if you want to read a book set in the near future that will get you thinking.

Summer Blogging Assignment

I wrote this piece for a third-party edtech site that ended up not using it. I’m happy to post it to my own blog!

A typical July morning for a school teacher might involve an early morning jog, some uninterrupted time with the newspaper, or packing the kids up for day camp. But this past summer I found myself gulping down a quick bowl of cereal each morning and then clicking through 140 student blogs written by rising tenth graders. Although my school year had blurred into my summer vacation, I wasn’t complaining. In truth, I was loving every minute of it.

The summer blogging assignment came together rather quickly once the idea was on the table, but its genesis was roughly three years in the making. It represented a watershed in my own ideas of teaching with technology that resulted from my involvement with the Connected Educators movement. At the TABS Summer Session at Boston University in 2011, I had been convinced that I needed to get on Twitter by independent-school-tech-evangelist Hans Mundahl. Hans predicted that our students would be using Twitter more actively than Facebook in the next year. When I got home to my apartment at George School, I went ahead and made a Twitter account (@EricAfterSchool), but two years went by before it began to pay dividends. Twitter has a steep learning curve, but when it clicks, it really makes sense. I was on duty in the Deans’ Office one Wednesday night in late 2013 when I noticed that some of the boarding school people whom I follow on Twitter were participating in something called #TABSchat. That was my first experience in the enormous world of Twitter chats for educators. #TABSchat led to #isedchat and #edtechchat and so forth.

Intent on learning as much as I could that was relevant to my work as an English teacher, I noticed that the other English teachers on Twitter were frequently promoting the importance of blogging. At first the thought of asking my students to create blogs and post their writing online made my skin crawl. Just think of the potential headaches! But these very passionate and clearly excellent teachers with whom I was conversing couldn’t all be crazy. And they had a strong case. I had been introduced the work of Grant Wiggins at the Klingenstein Summer Institute in 2004, and I knew how important authenticity is to successfully reaching students. Blogging allows student writers to build a real audience, read and comment on one another’s work, maintain a public portfolio, and take pride in their best work. Too often students labor over an essay for hours, hand it in to their teacher, and once it is returned to them they stick it in a binder where it never sees the light of day again. Is that all our students can aspire to?

I began to dream big dreams. As we approach the spring months each school year, my colleagues and I review the summer assignments that we give our students to keep their brains from suffering a summer slide. We had built an excellent assignment for our rising sophomores several years ago. It asked students to read a collection of poetry and a novel and then respond to a series of prompts. The responses to the prompts would come together to form something like a reflective journal. Students were putting dozens of hours of their time into this work, and they were expected to hand it in to their English teacher on the first day of their sophomore year. But then what?

I asked myself: What if I applied Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model to this assignment? If we substitute the journal with a blog, then English teachers could read the students’ work in real time over the summer, not just in a big hurry in the first week of September. Better yet, students could read and respond to one another’s writing in real time. In short, we could take our school’s strong sense of community (an important value at a Friends school) and project it beyond our walls and beyond the school year. Perhaps the strongest writers would inspire their less confident peers to reach for new heights, and perhaps this flurry of literary discourse would bring positive attention to the incredible quality of readers and writers we have at George School.

I expected pushback from my colleagues, but instead I was surprised by the quick approval my plan received. Sure, I greased the wheels a bit by volunteering to monitor all of the blogs all summer, but several enthusiastic colleagues stepped up to share in that “chore.” I presented the plan to the heads of the academic departments, and I was surprised by how many saw possibilities in the project that I hadn’t anticipated. The beauty of the assignment for the larger educational program of the school was to be realized once this school year began. Every member of the sophomore class would have an academic blog designed specifically for schoolwork. The blog was intended for English work, but it could just as easily serve to promote a student’s work in Science or Art or Religion. Looking at the blogs today, I see many students who are posting work in three subjects with regularity.

Of course I was worried about potential pitfalls in an assignment of this nature. Would internet trolls spam the Comments section of the students’ blogs? Would parents rebel against technology encroaching on their children’s summers? As it came to pass, no. Our school is blessed with a very respectful and mindful sense of community and civil discourse, and I relied on that community to steer this project safely. When small breaches of web etiquette occurred, they provided opportunities to explicitly teach digital citizenship. I asked students to manage the Settings of their blogs so that comments would need their approval before appearing on their sites, and most of them complied. Most of the comments they received were from me, other English teachers, their academic advisors, and their family members. It takes time to build an audience online, but the blogs are growing their reach. My hope is that these students will have three years of their best work on display on their blogs by the time they set sail for college. The blogs are built on platforms such as WordPress and Blogger, and they are “owned” by the students, not our school. They can continue to live on long after the students have graduated from high school, and I imagine that a new benefit will then reveal itself: High school teachers will be able to follow their former students’ work through college and graduate school straight through to their adult careers.

They weren’t even alive

This past week was the last week in which I posted new prompts for the Sophomore Summer Blogging assignment. I needed to come up with a poetry prompt that drew on poems from the latter pages of our anthology, so I found three I liked and built a prompt around them. The poems were by Yusef Komunyakaa, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Gary Soto.

As I was reading some students’ responses, I was reminded of how much I love the poem I assigned them by Soto, “Mexicans Begin Jogging.” I fell in love with Soto’s work when I heard him read in NYC while I was still in college. He was a nominee for the National Book Award, and all of the nominees did a reading together. One of the authors for whom my mother was a literary agent, Dennis Covington, was nominated that year, so my mom had a spare ticket and invited me to the reading. I told her afterwards how much I enjoyed Soto’s poetry, and she got me a signed copy of the book at an event later that night (or maybe it was the next day). I haven’t looked at the book in a while, and when I pulled it off my shelf, I discovered that Soto wrote me a personalized birthday greeting (clearly at my mother’s request). I’m sure I was deeply appreciative at the time, but over the intervening 18 years, I had forgotten that the inscription was so kind. I turned 22 in 1995, so that would have been my senior year at Columbia. I imagine that most of the students in the Class of 2017 who are doing this summer blogging assignment were born in 1999 or 2000. Still, here we all are; enjoying a poem from all of our different work-spaces scattered around the globe, about to get back together for the start of the school year in one week.

To my students: Be cool!

To anyone else reading this post: Check out some of the strong responses to this week’s poetry prompt by Michael P. and Anna C.