An Identity Crisis and a Fresh Start

Spring break is officially over. The light is at the end of the tunnel; 8 weeks until summer. And here I am sitting at a crossroad in my professional career.

For the last 6 years, I have identified as an English Teacher.
For the last 3 years, I have identified as a graduate student.

Once May comes and goes, both of these things will no longer be a part of my present, they will be a part of my past.

When it comes to the Grad school, I won’t miss the homework, I won’t miss staying up until midnight cramming the last bits of research and APA formatting to make the final touches on a project. I won’t miss the constant due dates looming over my head. But I’m a learner, and I thrive in that environment. In many ways, the last three years of grad school have taught me more about myself as a learner than all of my previous years of undergrad. I finally found my calling, my niche, my tribe.

When it comes to teaching English, I won’t miss the hours of grading essays; I won’t miss re-reading novels and articles I’ve read 8 times just to sharpen my lessons; I won’t miss the late work, or even the excuses that come with it. But the last 6 years have taught me so much about being an educator that I can’t help but wonder how I ever survived my first years of teaching.

I could list thank yous to every administrator, teacher, and student that has had an immediate and lasting impact on me, but I know that there isn’t time for that. So now, it’s not about looking in the past and reminiscing or missing, it’s about taking every opportunity I have in front of me to continue the work of a passionate educator.

It’s a bittersweet moment. I am in a liminal state of trying to find where I belong, of where I fit, of where I call home in a school. But I know having the experience of teaching for the last 6 years and completing my Master’s in Information and Learning Technologies has armed me with the tools I need to begin this new journey. To pave the way for my next adventure.

Onward and upward. In education, the journey is so much more important than the destination. It’s time to embrace my own motto of:

“True education is a kind of never ending story — a matter of continual beginnings, of habitual fresh starts, of persistent newness.” ~Tolkien

To everyone who has helped me, guided me, counseled me, laughed with me, here’s to you. Here’s to my never ending story!


PSA: PowerPoints Aren’t Terrible

But terrible PowerPoints are.  Let me set the record straight. I have seen a lot of different posts recently about different tools to make powerpoint presentations better. The only problem, is that the posts assume that the only thing that can make a presentation better is a special tool.

The reason that powerpoint presentations are terrible is because if you assign them, you aren’t teaching how to create them. In a lot of ways, it’s just like Erik Palmer suggests when we assign a speech: you have to teach how to give a speech as well. Assigning the presentation/speech doesn’t mean that your students know how to create a presentation/speech.

Just as students speak everyday, doesn’t mean they know how to communicate effectively. Same goes for students seeing presentations on a regular basis.

So how can you help make presentations better, be it PowerPoint, Keynote, or Google Slides?

Teach elements of design:

  • Teach Color Theory
  • Teach typography
  • Teach Simplistic design principles
  • Teach the importance of visuals
  • Teach structure and progression of ideas
  • Teach about including anecdotes and stories
  • Teach different types of presentations: Ignite talks, TED talks, Pecha Kucha – These force students to think about the presentation as a whole, not just words on a slide for an assignment

If you want to see some good examples of presentations that aren’t terrible, look at Steve Jobs’ original iPhone keynote (although he is using Keynote, but you get the idea).

Or look at Adam Bellow’s Keynote at ISTE 2013

Both examples help you see how the visual elements are great enhancements to the actual address.

There are some great tips to learning and teaching better presentations in the book Presentation Zen

Teach students how to give a presentation, and you can avoid death by powerpoint. The bottom line is that if you can help students see the value in the slideshows, they’ll do it well.



Something new for the first day of class

I’ve only had a few first days of classes in my short career as a teacher, but it always starts the same: butchering a bunch of students’ names as I go through the attendance before I drone on about my class policies and expectations.  How boring. Blech.

As I am trying to shift my instruction from a traditional model to a project-based learning model, I realize that I have to step up my game.  I do not want to lose my students on the first day with a bunch of boring rules the same way that I was greeted on the first day of classes 10-15 years ago.

I have created a video that I am hoping has several benefits.  First, I am trying to show that conventional ways of doing things aren’t always the best.  Secondly, I’d like them to see that it is ok – in fact preferable – to try something new and be creative.  I am not sure if it will have the impact that I’m looking for, but I am open to your feedback.   The final benefit that I am hoping to achieve is that it is motivating and encouraging.

I am trying to take the advice that I am giving my students in this video – get ready to dive in without fear of failure.

Let me know what you think!

Enlighten Us, But Make it Quick

The title provides sage advice for any teacher having to deal with student presentations.  As an English teacher, teaching speaking often gets added to my plate – however right or wrong that is.  Teachers who do presentations in class are often faced with a fine balance of pain and enlightenment. Luckily, I enjoy public speaking and teaching it.  Chalk it up to my love of the performing arts and Speech and Debate.

I am constantly amazed by the number of ideas I come up with by reading blog posts, attending conferences, and watching YouTube videos.  My most recent success in my classroom comes from all three of these places.

In my semester of student teaching, I had the pleasure of working with  Erik Palmer (author of Well Spoken and Digitally Speaking).  Through my experiences of working with him and hearing his presentation on communication skills, it became important for me to help all of my students with

Now, I have always been a fan of TED talks, in fact, I have lost countless hours of sleep watching brilliant minds purge their ideas to an attentive audience.  I have toyed with the idea of using TED talks in my classroom as a way to promote and teach public speaking skills, but the format doesn’t  lend itself to 50 minutes classes with 30 students in each class.  It would take 2-3 weeks just to give every student the opportunity to present the ideas that are passionate to him/her.

I was at an impasse: I no longer wanted to expose my students – nor myself – to “death by PowerPoint”, but I didn’t have the flexibility or time to do the TED talks that always inspire me.

When I was at the NCTE annual conference in Las Vegas last November, I went to an “Ignite” session.  It was there that I learned about this presentation format that is designed to “enlighten the audience; but make it quick”.  The basic premise of an Ignite talk is the speaker has 5 minutes to present and their presentation (slideshow) has 20 slides that proceed at 15 second intervals.  This presentation forces the speaker to focus on the speaking instead of focusing on what the slides say.

After countless hours of watching Ignite Talkson YouTube, I decided to launch my Honors American Lit into full guinea pig mode (something that they are all too familiar with since I am a new teacher).  I was blown away.  I provided many models, lots of workshops and practice, instruction on speaking skills using PVLEGS,  and plenty of moral support.

I listened to 70 student presentations in 3 days and I did not once feel my life being drained away by student presentations. It is possible to have quality student presentations.

After a self-reflection, here are a couple of the students’ reactions to the project:

“This project was a huge obstacle for most if not all for us in one way or another. I wish that there was a way to convey that it wasnt nearly as daunting a task as we thought.”

“I would have liked to know that it really isn’t scary having a moving power-point playing behind you when speaking. If you put in the time to synchronize the pictures with your speech then it is not threatening at all.”

Time of death for “death by powerpoint”:  Spring ’13.



P.S. Thoughts for next time around: livestream presentations, record presentations to post on student blogs, host a high school “Ignite Night”, and probably many, many more.