2015 PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator

2015 PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator

Monday, September 23, 2013

Banned Books Week

The week of September 23, 2013 is Banned Books Week.  This affects every reader, but as a teacher of literature, I take personally any attempt to ban books, especially books that I currently teach.

In celebration of Banned Books Week, a North Carolina school board banned Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.  Read NPR's report here.

Ralph Ellison's novel is a bildungsroman about an African-American who gradually loses his naivete about racism during the Harlem Renaissance.  My students find it to be a difficult read, sometimes because of Ellison's highly-descriptive and poetic style, sometimes because of the frustrating innocence of the protagonist.





[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Invisible Man in his apartment with stolen light.
Photo: Jeff Wall[/caption]




We spend weeks unpacking the novel.  My students learn literary criticism through their research on Ellison and the Harlem Renaissance.  They learn how to analyze a work for its motifs.  They learn that syntax can be symbolic.  They learn that writers can be eerily prophetic.  At the end of it all, we are exhausted but better for our journey through Ellison's graphically-depicted world.

I hope that my students will better appreciate literature knowing that there will always be authority figures who wish to keep it from them.  I hope they ask questions, many questions, of themselves and the authority figures in their lives.  I hope they find at least one book that makes them think, grow. . .and want to change the world for the better.


Stephani Itibrout

English Teacher

Follow me on Twitter @itibrout

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Armchair Quarterbacks in Education

We all know Armchair Quarterbacks.

[caption id="attachment_246" align="alignnone" width="250"]My husband is a card-carrying member.  Are you? My husband is a card-carrying member. Are you?[/caption]


Those are the people who can solve all the problems of education with a wave of a magic wand.  The Armchair Quarterback has the brilliant ideas that NOBODY has EVER thought of, and without any research or understanding of education, he has just figured out what you were never smart enough to know.   My husband is an Armchair Quarterback.  His priority is usually saving the Browns (why won't they call him????), but on occasion, he graces me with his wisdom about what is wrong with education and what should fix the problem.  His solutions involve lots of uses of "they" ("Who are they?" I ask.  "You know, the people in charge.  Them," he replies, as if I am especially simple-minded during this conversation), and he talks at length about budgets.  I find it incredible that a man who can't drive past a Sears Hardware without dropping fifty bucks talks to me about budgets.

This post isn't about publicly ridiculing my husband.  I can do that the next time he tries to beat me at euchre.  This post is about people who think that there are simple, quick fixes to problems in education.

Our district has a school board election coming up.  For reasons that you have probably heard on the news or read about in the newspapers (if you live in Ohio), there will be many people who feel very strongly that they can "fix" the education in our district, more specifically the budget.  One of the candidates has stated publicly that online education will be the way to fix our budget. This disturbs me for many reasons, but I only have the space to explain one of them.  I am a Blended Learning Teacher.  I teach Blended Rhetoric and Composition on a rotational model.  The students come to class at least three days a week, and they can choose to "flex" the other two days by working on their projects from home.  They can also choose to come in to class during that time for conferences, help, or just because they would rather be in school at that time.  I monitor their flex time through Blackboard, our LMS, and they frequently communicate with me when they aren't in school.

My first thought is this:  If my course goes to full online instruction, how will that save money?  Will we require students to come to school and use our computers?  We need new computers, if that is the case.  Who will teach the children?  Will the board buy canned online courses and replace me with a "computer monitor" (see what I did there?) who makes eight bucks an hour and watches the students to prevent vandalism or other discipline problems?

On Friday I looked at my class, and I took a deep breath.  I had thirteen different projects going on all at once.  Some students were researching blogs, some were editing their previous writing, some were collaborating on a new project (a suicide prevention campaign), some were writing literary analyses about "Little Things" by Raymond Carver, and some were reading the next section of 1984.  All of them were practicing relevant, real-world skills that they will need when they leave high school.  All of them needed my guidance, direction, re-direction, and encouragement because they are still in high school and not ready for the real world.  Can a prepaid online course give them all of that?

It all boils down to this: when we devalue the role of teachers, we devalue our children.  My students deserve the best, and I want to do my best to give it to them.

Look, I don't know the answers, especially when it comes down to budgets.  For me, starting a Blended Learning class is one way that I can try to be a part of the solution.  You want students to be better prepared for life after school?  I'm trying to help.  Armchair Quarterbacks, I think it's great that you want to help.  Just know that the Facebook status of education right now might best be "It's complicated."  Please do some research, really think about the pros and cons instead of just dismissing or ignoring the parts you don't like,  and then share your ideas.


Stephani Itibrout

Rhetoric and Composition

Follow me on Twitter @itibrout

Sunday, September 15, 2013


In the seventeen years I've been teaching at the same high school, I've had three superintendents, eight head principals, and too many associate principals to count.  I should have abandonment issues.  When I think about how unstable a teacher's job really is, I am sometimes tempted to crawl into the fetal position and rock while sobbing.  That's hyperbole, by the way; I'm not entirely sure that I could actually arrange my body into the fetal position.



With each new leader, whether it's at the district or building level, comes a new-and-improved great idea, and believe me, THIS time it's going to make a big difference for everyone.  I have learned to filter out the details and get right to the point, "How is this good for kids?"  If any leader can satisfactorily answer that question with a minimum amount of bullshit and a maximum amount of know-how, I will gladly follow him or her.  If the answer comes with a whole lot of bluster, and I sense very little preparedness, I throw down the gauntlet.

The best leader I've ever known in my district began or ended every conversation with me by saying, "What can I do to help you as a teacher?"  Whenever I gave him an answer, and I always did, he would honestly tell me whether he could give me what I wanted or not.  We sometimes didn't agree, but he always did his homework, and he always welcomed my challenges when I didn't agree with him.  That's a leader.

The primary responsibility of a leader is to take care of those she leads.  The secondary responsibility is to create as many potential leaders as possible.  A true leader raises up the people who follow her, encouraging them to take more responsibility, learn, and grow.

Recently our Administrator of Technology Integration took a job as a Blended Learning Consultant for an educational consulting group.  She could have left us in the lurch, as some leaders have done, but she didn't.  She kept us informed, and she has continued to ask what she can do to help us develop our Blended Learning program in the district.  We realized when she left that she has given us the necessary tools to continue the vision of moving the district forward with technology integration.  Thank you, Stacy, for all of your leadership.  She made us want to step up and lead, and that is just what we have done.  As a matter of fact, I'd like to be the first to announce on this blog that our new Technology Integration Coach is. . .Christina Hamman, whom you know as The Math Teacher on this blog.  Christina has many exciting ideas to move us forward, and she is making good on our commitment to district leadership.


[caption id="attachment_239" align="alignnone" width="300"]t_shirt_slave_driver-r8543e04fd8ab4d7aab229c484c31b5dd_804gs_324 This is the t shirt we are making her wear when she visits our classes.[/caption]

Christina is smart, driven, and responsible.  She has earned the respect of her students and colleagues.  She will ask us what we need to be better teachers, and if she can make it happen, she will.  She will challenge teachers to learn with the students and to think about their needs.

A teacher is that kind of leader.  I,too, want to begin or end every conversation I have with my students by asking, "What can I do to help you grow as a student?"  I want to listen to their answers and give them what they want if it will help them.  I want my students to challenge me.  If I can't answer the question, "How is this good for kids?' about anything I do, then I shouldn't be doing it.  If I do my job correctly, my students will be future leaders who will raise up those they lead.


Stephani Itibrout

Blended Learning Rhetoric and Composition

Follow me on Twitter @itibrout

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Julie can't give a speech, and her 504 says that I must find a way to accommodate this.   It would be an understatement to say that this is problematic in an English class.  I was immediately frustrated, and I consulted Julie's former teachers.

"What should I do?  We start the year with an introduction speech!" I said to my friend the speech therapist, with whom I run in the mornings.

"Can she submit a speech without giving it in front of the class?" she asked.

"Will Julie submit a speech on YouTube?" I asked her former English teacher.

"I offered that possibility last year," she said.  "No go."

I truly wanted to accommodate Julie's needs, but I wasn't sure how to do it so she would be successful.  Typing and sending a paper isn't the same as a speech, and speeches are a required part of the Speaking and Listening Standards.  Furthermore, I was worried that Julie wasn't going to attempt anything I suggested.

I took a deep breath and jumped. . . I told Julie that she could submit her speech using any web tool of her choice.  I suggested Sock Puppets because through the app she could scrub her voice, but I said any tool would do.  I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

This morning I opened my email and found a link to Julie's Voki.  Voki is a free web 2.0 tool that generates avatars that can speak whatever words you give them.  Julie had typed her speech into the Voki, and her avatar spoke the words she gave it.

I use Voki for my introduction pages on Blackboard.  I like it because I can use different avatars for each purpose.  Here is my Voki for my Blended Rhetoric and Composition class:


And here is my Voki for my AP Literature and Composition class:

Which one looks the most like me?



I realize that technically, Julie only typed a paper, but she had to make that paper sound like a speech, which I think is a big step.  These are the moments that I thank God that I took several workshops on free Web 2.0 tools.  What would I have done without Voki?

The point is this:  let go and take a chance.  Sometimes an app will work, and sometimes it will blow up in your face.  Sometimes a breakthrough will come from the use of an app or a tool, and that erases all the other epic fails (as long as you learn from them).

How do you use Voki?


Stephani Itibrout

Blended English

Follow me on Twitter @itibrout