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Series: Elements of Structure Part 5: Radio and Podcasts

I need to interrupt this regularly scheduled blog post to talk about something…odd.

Call it a coincidence, call it fate, call it noticing patterns and ‘close reading’ of the minutiae of my life.

Two days ago I chose to catch up on some podcasts, and Stuff You Missed in History Class came on featuring a teacher named Jerry Hancock. His expertise is the history of Sears in American culture, economics, etc. And while that was fascinating, what struck me was his introduction about his teaching life. He clearly says because his school is doing academically well “they” leave him alone, and he’s happiest when he can shut his door and teach. He’s a high school history teacher in Georgia, was a teacher of the year.

“As long as my door’s closed and it’s just me and my students I’m happiest.”


Working at a high-poverty school Title I school has far more benefits and rewards than drawbacks, no question about it. Over the years I’ve had the illusion at least that I have academic freedom, and because of my personal values, background, and integrity, with a hefty dose of life experience and creativity, each day I’m reminded of the gift of having a profession where I can put my talents to actual, purposeful use. And isn’t that what everyone wants? Purpose? Self-actualization? The ability to use the bathroom once in awhile? (Yes, every day is a trip up and down Maslow’s pyramid. Every. Damn. Day.)

But there is a HUGE drawback, and I’m not sure what to do about it, and quite possibly, there is nothing to be done about it.

Because as long as there is racism, sexism, poverty and standardized testing where the money to teach our students draws from its well, there will always be meetings and reflective practices about what teachers, and teachers alone, can do better. I know it’s a team effort, I know everyone has skin in the game, I know…I know…but sometimes the conversation is ambushed by ‘teacher-centered’ ideas and not student-centered, and since the two are interconnected things disconnect. The serenity prayer rocks off the rails: trying to decide what we have control over or not feels disingenuous right about now.

But I do have control over myself (to a greater or lesser degree). I do not have control how others perceive me, and that is my Achille’s Heel because I keep making the mistake of thinking I do.

The biggest cause of despair amongst myself and colleagues is the microscopic, pseudo-psychology cabal of discussing what we teachers are doing wrong because our scores are low.

We don’t want them to be. We are not trying to sabotage or destroy the process. For the most part, we are desperately seeking to support all of our students, and meet or exceed their expectations. One of my personal joys is that I am paid by their parents, by the community: I work for them, for their future. My efforts will directly affect their futures.

However when the adults are choosing, discussing, mandating, reflecting, whatever gerund you want to use, decisions must be made with surgical precision. I am wondering if there is something more insidious at stake: the gambler’s fallacy. And I wouldn’t say it’s doing the same things over again, but not recognizing when we’re trying to do something different. From my time spent getting my masters, the research-based drive is the gold standard. So we’re caught in a fixed space that’s moving, like a car or an airplane: we’re moving at hundreds of miles per hour, but stuck in our seats. The seat is the research, the will is the speed.

What if we flip the script? Instead of looking at boxes by race, gender, and special needs, what if we ask students what they think? How powerful to have a cohort of students asking and questioning what they see as the issues they face? I did such a thing a few years ago when I showed students that their data was being tracked by race and gender. Quite frankly, they were appalled. It infuriated them that their lives and education were reduced to check boxes. I think it’s time to bring back that question to my 8th graders.

It must be noted that race and gender are fixed, as least race is. With the growing awareness of transgender and gender identity gender is perhaps more fluid.

And if you’re confronting issues of racism, sexism, and poverty, how brave will you be? Will you change anyone’s mind?
Well, I have no answers. More questions…more and more. It’s the first day of winter break, or rather the first weekend day, and my eyes are puffy from crying the night before, (TL:DR: the adults. Always the adults.) The house is quiet, and two weeks of my sons, my dogs, and my creative drive is spread out before me.
And time to listen to more podcasts.
Here are some mentioned in this article, and more of my favorites:
Ones on my “to listen” list:
I have others on feeds, too, such as Nerdist, etc. but tend not to click on those as much.
To me, the essence and exquisite simplicity of a podcast are the big questions the writers ask at the beginning, the overarching themes they will explore: if this isn’t what we want all students to do — question, reflect, critically think — then I’m out of ideas.
After the break I plan on using podcasts for thinking and creating. How have you used podcasts in your classroom?
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Series: Elements of Structure Part 4: Documentary Resources


Documentaries are non-fiction with bias. At least that’s how I define it…because documentaries are so much more than just presenting facts. Sheila Curran Bernard says it better:

“Documentaries bring viewers into new worlds and experiences through the presentation of factual information about real people, places, and events, generally — but not always — portrayed through the use of actual images and artifacts. But factuality alone does not define documentary films; it’s what the filmmaker does with those factual elements, weaving them into an overall narrative that strives to be as compelling as it is truthful and is often greater than the sum of its parts.”

–Sheila Curran Bernard, Author of Documentary Storytelling

If you’re interested in sharing documentaries with students, here are some good resources:

Films for Action

Top Documentary Films

Documentary Heaven

PBS 11 Documentary Sites

Added: Frontline

Documentaries must not stay in the domain of history or social studies but extend far into all content areas. Moreover, students creating their own documentaries may be the most powerful voice and tool of all. If you’re heavily embedded in fiction and literature studies, consider documentaries that discuss the lives of the authors, or take on a meta-fictional approach. 

And what a grand opportunity for students to explore and analyze sources:

Original Post
Original Post

I would love to know what documentaries you’ve shown, and if you’ve tried having students create their own. How did it go, and what went well?

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Series: Elements of Structure Part 3: Plodding Plots


This upcoming January-February I’ll return to the Journey of the Hero unit. It’s been tossed, denigrated, punched, and still, it comes up standing, ready for more. Joseph Campbell never fails me. The ginormous binder tome that contains its massive and timeless information, and look forward to those ah-ha moments when students recognize nearly every single story, movie or tale is indeed, a monomyth.

The CCSS which specifically address Journey of the Hero or monomyth are not under the heading of Craft and Structure, but these:

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

Analyze the extent to which a filmed or live production of a story or drama stays faithful to or departs from the text or script, evaluating the choices made by the director or actors.
Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.
But I can’t help but think the good people at the CCSS got it a little wrong–patterns are structure.
There is nothing new under the sun. When considering structure, scholars propose that there are no new stories, not really, and we can find stories fitting into a minimum amount of plots:
But this analysis or categorization creates inherent boredom in our content area, so I caution all of us not to get into the systemic drilling of parts, and forget to put back together the whole.
Maybe that is really the theme of Shelley’s Frankenstein: the man could not make better what the gods created, and putting it back together makes it awkward and angry. When analyzing plot and the various types of plot, make sure to step back and look at the whole map, and allow students moments of many personal connections. A story is only as good as we hear it.
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Series: Elements of Structure Part 2: Shock and Awe

Part 2 of the Elements of Structure Series

When I clicked on this link this morning, I did not know who the producers were. I had no idea about bias, message, or author’s purpose. I just sat and watched it, thinking it a sweet narrative.

Normally I’m not so blinded by the surprise, the hidden but the overarching message. I didn’t think I was susceptible to misdirection: why? Because I know what it means–how can we be tricked when we invented the magic?

But I was, and the effect was devastating.

No spoilers here. I’ll allow you the same effect–would love to hear your comments, though.

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Series: Elements of Structure Part I: Effect


As we weave in the CCSS into our instruction, create engaging work, etc. it’s my nature to dive deeply into the subject area–to me, that’s what great teachers do, even if they know a subject intimately. It’s the artist in me: there’s always more to observe and try. With that in mind, I am writing a series on structure, craft, and style.

The first idea I want to share comes courtesy of my intelligent and wonderful colleague, Tami Gores. She and I are both working with coaches, and also have a common ground understanding of my friend and mentor, Holly Stein. (I mention this because it’s refreshing to work with someone who understands me, and I hope she feels the same. In this world, having any shared history with a colleague is a gift.)

She is the Queen of Co-Constructed Anchor Charts. The first ah-ha moment she provided me was the idea of how structure influences effect:

Courtesy of Tami Gores
Courtesy of Tami Gores


We ELA teachers understand the rudimentary plot diagram:

From Chalkboxtales.blogspot
From Chalkboxtales.blogspot

But structure is so, so much more than this. This is the little engine that could, and while important to teach, it’s a place to start. This series will explore these ideas. With Tami’s help, and working with other ELA folks in my building, I’m sure we’ll come up with wonderful shared instruction for our students that’s relevant and empowering.

To me — there are few things more empowering that understanding another’s story. Stay tuned.