Friday, March 07, 2014

PowerPoint or Pointless

As a classroom teacher, I didn't use PowerPoint a lot, not because I couldn't, but because it was such a static medium.  I used the old fashioned overhead that allowed me to write, draw, and design visuals that followed the conversation we were having.  However, at times, PowerPoint was very relevant and I especially wanted to teach my students how to leverage PowerPoint to their advantage, and not stumble, like so many do, into creating slides with too much text and spending too much time reading their slides to the audience.

However, as an academic, I'm frequently speaking to large audiences in spaces that typically encourage, if not require, some sort of visual presentation.  Several years ago, I participated in a PechaKucha night and it was a revelation of what PPT could inspire.  Since then, I've had the pleasure of experiencing a few professional speakers and researchers who use PPT to strategically  illustrate points and/or reinforce the mood/tone of their speech, rather than provide the entire text of their speech.

Rebecca Schuman takes on the pointlessness of PPT in higher education with her entertaining and informative presentation PowerPointless: Digital slideshows are the scourge of higher education.  It blithely highlights the horrible habits we have all gotten into when using PPT and exposes what our students really feel about our use of text-heavy, dull, and outdated presentations. As she states, mid-way through her presentation, "A presentation, believe it or not, is the opening move of a conversation - not the entire conversation."

Although I continue to create presentations for conferences, I hope that my move toward the use of graphics and strategic selection of quoted data helps build the audience engagement in what I'm presenting.  A little later in her presentation, Schuman states, "If your audience can understand everything it needs to from your slides only . . . cut 50% of the slides and 90% of the text."  In other-words, if the slideshow can be read like a book, what's the point of me standing in front of you speaking?  You could read it on your own time!

What do you think?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Researchers as Writers - for whom and how?

Right now there is a major debate going on through multiple academic listservs.  It revolves around a recent article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times entitled "Professors, We Need You". He begins the piece with a provocative opening, "Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates."  He continues to point out the "the anti-intellectualism in American life" and how, at times, professors themselves are to blame for this - as generally, they are not (or are prevented from) engaging in public debates of importance.  As researchers/professors, publication is a crucial part of tenure, but the audience and purpose is not necessarily to impact local, state or national policies or programs.  Instead, too often, academic research is written for academic researchers.  And, to be part of that great conclave, one must learn and use the academic jargon (or Academic Jibberish as Stephen Krashen calls it), required for admission.  Instead of writing for the masses, professors are writing for the select few. free clip art
In my own dissertation, I selected to use the "three article option" rather than the traditional five chapter format.  In addition, I deliberately selected practitioner-read journals as my target journals, rather than academic elite journals.  My research focused on researching with and learning from teachers, and it was my goal that other teachers would be interested in and enjoy learning from them too.  To bridge the worlds of the researcher and the practitioner, I took Duke and Beck's advise to write the dissertation as a series of articles in a “genre authentic to the field” (1999, p. 34).

However, Kristof is not only critiquing academic report writing, but he continues that "Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook."  This is not surprising to me, as many academics don't receive "credit" for non-official writing such as social media or local opinion pieces.  If the process of tenure rewarded public engagement, then I'm sure more professors would involve themselves in this.  An organization that has been trying to influence this policy is Imagining America Organization and it recognizes that public scholarship needs to be supported.

Allen Berger, in his article "Writing about Reading for the Public" (The Reading Teacher, Sep. 1997), suggests that as literacy professionals, we need to learn how to write for publications that the public reads - which means understanding the style, format, length and audience for various publications.  In addition, according to Berger, we need to be reading the publications that influence public opinion and, rather than just responding to criticism, we need to be opening the doors to dialogue on issues and topics that we want to debate publicly.

As an early career scholar, I've grown up academically with digital spaces supplementing my traditional training.  I read blogs from graduate students, international teachers, writers and professors to gain insight on the intellectual work they are doing and sharing through their "slice of life" blog entries.  I actively participate in Twitter chats as a teacher, teacher-educator, adjunct faculty, and writer.  These conversations, with other engaged and excited people continue to inspire me to question further, read more, and consider other viewpoints.  One of the best things that I've learned on the web is to follow people with opinions very different from my own and not only "like" those who share my opinions.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Getting to Know the Characteristics of Good Teachers

For most pre-service teachers, they have had 13+ years of "apprenticeship of observation" (Lortie, 1975) - that is, they  have been students in schools for thousands of hours and seem to know what teachers do everyday.  However, as any classroom teacher will tell you - there is a lot of time, thought and effort that goes on behind the scenes that students never see.  As a teacher-educator, I hope to help my pre-service teachers become more aware of how their previous experiences as students influences their understanding of teaching and learning and their own development as teachers.

 One of the first activities I ask my pre-service teachers to complete is a quick review of the "characteristics of effective teachers".  To accomplish this, I ask the students to search for and view four YouTube videos using search terms like - characteristics/qualities/traits and good/effective/excellent and teachers.  The students take notes on the author and purpose of the video and what characteristics were discussed.  Then, in small groups, the students combine their observations for a group list - which is then compared against the other groups.  It is not surprising, but the results are fairly consistent - passionate, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, fair, organized, supportive, patient, caring, friendly, respectful and creative.

I then introduce the book "Thank You, Mr. Falker" by  Patricia Polacco, which is a memoir of her struggles with dyslexia in school and the teacher who made a difference for her.  Jane Kaczmarek reads the story in this Screen Actors Guild video.  Using a Quick Write, students reflect on the teachers who have influenced them the most and share their responses with a partner.

Finally, in small groups, students draft a job description for a teacher.  This would include the objective, summary statement, qualifications, duties/responsibilities, required skills, and desired skills.  It could also include the salary range and hours. 

For many students, this was the first time they have broken down the actual job of a teacher into the smaller parts to consider the daily tasks of not just lesson planning and teaching, but communicating with staff and parents, assessment paperwork, additional duties like lunch and recess, after school activities, and assorted professional meetings.  I chuckled when one student commented, "Hmmm... I guess I should really look into actual job descriptions, considering this is what I want to do." 

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Put One Word After Another Until Done

Publish or perish is the axiom for many scholars and academics, and it is true in many cases.  However, that proverb frames the practice of writing as an unwelcome dictum.  For the past few days, I've been gleaning words of inspiration, portraits of struggle, and motivation to continue to make meaning of my life, teaching and research through writing at the Living the Writerly Life session and study group at the Literacy Research Association conference 2013.  Although the genre of academic writing is a bit particular – there are a lot of useful tidbits for writers of all sorts.

One of the most bountiful sessions for inspiration and advise was sponsored by the Living the Writerly Life study group organizers and was entitled “ We All Have Something to Say: Strategies for Living the Writerly Life.”  In this alternative format sessions, well-published scholars speed-dated us in small groups and shared their collective wisdom of writing.

Julie Coiro, from the University of Rhode Island, encouraged many practices that writing teachers in schools encourage – read a lot with an eye to craft; keep a writer's notebook of ideas; write the first draft as a freewrite and craft it for specific purposes later; and find critical friends (especially classroom teachers) to get feedback.  It is important to clarify personal interests to focus a research agenda that is manageable.  As many others reiterated later – aim for a revise and resubmit (R&R), as that means a journal is interested and willing to work with you to craft the final piece.  Celebrate this!

Beth Dobler, from Emporia State University, advised to find the kernel of a topic that you really care about because you will be with it for a while.  In addition, 85% of writing time is really pre-writing – the thinking, planning, and researching of a topic.  Provide the time to do this well and the final piece will be stronger.

Lori Assaf, from Texas State University, counseled us to not just celebrate R&R, but to get them revised and resubmitted as soon as possible.  When they languish on the “to do” pile, they tend not to get done and as time passes, the piece becomes out of date.  As educational researchers, we need to be aware of the various audiences we need to interact with, therefore try to craft three different pieces on a topic or data set – one for a research journal, one for a practitioner journal, and one as an opinion piece.

Laura Pardo, from Hope College, urged us to keep a writer's notebook.  A  consistent place for writing encourages writing as a habit and practice, and should include more than just academic writing.  She has sections and tabs in her notebook for different ideas and purposes.

Doug Kauffman, from the University of Connecticut,  commented that “writing is a blue collar job rather than artistry”.  He encouraged us to get rid of the idea that writings needs to be pretty and artful.  Just get stuff on the page.  With something on the screen, there is something to revise.  If we think of revision as an act of play and experimentation, then we don't have to wait for inspiration to hit.  The artistry of writing comes through revision, not generation.

Beth Maloch, from the University of Texas at Austin, talked about balancing teaching and research.  Her best advise was to hold fast to the suggested allocation of time that many research institutions use – the 40/40/20 of teaching, research and service.  In a 40 hours work week, this means that 16 hours should be devoted to research/writing.  Just like classes and meetings, this should be on your schedule!

Taffy Raphael, from the University of Illinois at Chicago, posed a powerful question, “What do you need to move forward in your writing?”  Identify that need and work to make it happen.  For her, Taffy mentioned the need for collaboration, writing retreats, and discipline (with time and distractions).  Use what you currently do (classes, presentations) to get started on writing.  Tape your conference talks (the best version) to transcribe to a paper.

Besides this alternative session – the daily study group is truly a motivating factor for many people who return each year.  The study session helps us clarify our goals – both immediate and long-term, and provides peer accountability and deadlines for these goals

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Twas the Night Before LRA

Twas the night before LRA, and all through Love Field,
The teachers and researchers were departing their flights.
The program was set, with thoughtful reviews
In hopes that all attending scholars would happily choose.

The students back home were all snug with a substitute,
Or eagerly anticipating a day of peaceful solitude.
As academics with PPTs prepared to show off their learning,
We settled our brains for four days of discerning!

In the lobby of the Omni Hotel there arose such a clatter,
“I haven't seen you since last year – let's have a a quick chatter!”
Good friends and the colleagues we meet only here,
Enjoy the warmer climate of Dallas this year.

Dallas, a site of both cultural icons and historical meaning,
Provides a good space for our personal gleaning,
Transformative Literacy: Theory, Research, and Reform,
Our mission – that powerful, critical literacy becomes the norm.

With R. Beach and T. Rodgers we will soon understand
Digital Texts Through Social Practices, will be absolutely grand.
They soon will be joined by K. Chandler-Olcott, and A. F. Ball,
F. Boyd and T. McCarty – in Plenaries for all.

Besides large group sessions, there's papers for all:
Besides broad categories of quant and qual
We'll dive into case study, mixed methods, and more.
The possibilities are endless, it's so hard store!

As people engage in dynamic sessions,
The Twitter feed #LRA13 will ask many questions.
But don't forget to feed both your stomach and mind,
To be social and meet everyone, especially newbies, is kind.

An then in a twinkling, the conference will come to an end.
With new contacts and friendships, and papers to pen.
We will return to our schools and our colleges fresh,
Recognizing that our LRA community is truly blessed.

Dedicated people and volunteers galore
Provide yearly meetings that refresh us to the core.
Thank you all officers, elected and served,
Our gratitude is endless, and all is deserved.

Let's meet again next year, some place in the East,
While our daily work with powerful literacy will never cease.
And never forget Frederick Douglass's plea
“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Misunderstood Minds – An Introduction to Children Who Learn Differently

I recently discovered a wonderful resource to help teachers and parents better understand learning issues. Learning differences and difficulties are notoriously tough to understand and recognize. In the past, students who learned differently were often segregated to separate schools or classrooms and were denied a quality education. In the 1970s, with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), more attention was given to supporting students who learn differently in the regular classroom – however, it was still often seen as the Special Education department's job to identify and support students. Unfortunately, too often students needed to have significant achievement gaps, behavioral issues, or failures before support was provided. 

More recently, with the implementation of Response to Intervention (RTI), classroom teachers have the responsibility to identify students who need more individualized support in a proactive manner. The model in Wisconsin centers on culturally responsive practices, using collaboration, balanced assessment, and high quality instruction within a multilevel system of support to help students achieve academic standards.
This has the potential to significantly decrease the referrals to special education for all students. It also challenges the traditional model of education that assumes all students learn the same and if not, the problem is with the student. Instead, RTI recognizes that students learn differently and some may need more individualized instruction based on their strengths (not just deficits) to achieve.

An excellent resource to introduce teachers to the complexities of learning differences and difficulties is the PBS video "Misunderstood Minds." It follows three years in the lives of five families whose children struggle to learn. In addition, there is an excellent companion website that provides definitions, explanations, and resources for learning difficulties in reading, writing, math and attention. One of the most unique aspects of the website are the “Experience Firsthand” activities that simulate what it would look and feel like to have a particular learning difficulty. The video is about 90 minutes long but provides an excellent personal portrait of each of the children, the struggles of their families, and the complexities of understanding learning difficulties. I will provide a brief summary of the video.

The first student introduced was Nathan VanHoy, who struggled to read. His struggles were masked by his strong verbal skills and ability to memorize, but he knew he wasn't reading like his classmates. After intensive testing, he was diagnosed with a phonemic awareness problem -- an inability to innately distinguish between the different letter sounds that form words. With great trepidation, his mother made the decision to have Nathan have lessons in the school's resource room which provided intensive training in phonemic awareness. He made progress, but also had plateaus. 

The next student profiled was Lauren Smith, who was creative, dramatic and social, but had difficulties with focus, attention, and organization. In addition to academic problems, Lauren had difficulty making and keeping friends. These issues helped her doctors diagnose an attention difficulty, that most likely resulted from an imbalance of dopamine in her brain. Hesitant to use medication for Lauren, her parents decided to try sending Lauren to a different school, which at first seemed to help. But, when the newness wore off, Lauren continued to have academic and social difficulties. Her parents agreed to try medication for Lauren in addition to other strategies, such as coaching in academic and social interactions, organization tools, and time management. With a multi-tiered approach, Lauren found more success. 

Next the video introduced Sarah Lee. She was very popular, highly social and interactive until about fourth grade. At that time, she began to struggle to articulate her ideas in class and stopped participating. After some testing, the speech and language specialist recognized that Sarah Lee had expressive language deficiency and recommended a full and ongoing language immersion program - almost like second language instruction. With constant practice and feedback, Sarah Lee made significant improvement. 

The next segment profiled Adam, who struggled with reading throughout elementary school, but when tested was determined to be "average" so his learning difficulties were not identified until high school.  At that point, he hated school and skipped it, turning to the streets to find acceptance.  Unfortunately, this led to using alcohol and drugs to numb his frustration and disappointment and stealing.  When caught, he was jailed, but being sober and attending classes, he began to make progress.  Unfortunately, when he returned to high school, he did not receive support and was eventually expelled. Without a diploma, his options are limited.  

The last story focused on another Nathan, who showed frustration and aggression in kindergarten.  An early diagnosis indicated ADD, but medication didn't seem to work. He stopped taking it and his mother decided to home school.  He continued to struggle and began to exhibit depression and suicidal thoughts.  At this point, he met with Dr. Levine, who found Nathan was highly intelligent and had strong visual skills, but struggled with graphomotor (writing) skills - in other words, he knew what he wanted to write, but struggled to form the words.  Dr. Levine showed him how to use his strengths to support his writing.  In addition, Nathan's parents decided that more structure and discipline would help Nathan and they enrolled him at a military school.  At the end of the first year, Nathan had regained some confidence and found more success in his academics.

This video illustrated the long and difficult process that many families go through to support their children who learn differently than others in school. The children who struggle to learn also struggle with negative emotions such as teasing from classmates, disappointment of the adults around them, and the constant labels of lazy, stupid or obstinate. Learning difficulties are not easy to assess and diagnose, and children often learn survival strategies that mask the real problem. Once a learning difficulty is diagnosed, there are many difficult decisions that need to be made. The video also showed the struggle of the parents - to readjust their understanding of their children, to make life-changing decisions, and to work within and outside of schools' special education perimeters. It also illustrates the importance of social, cultural and economic capital - as the parents needed to negotiate multiple systems of support and expectations.

Winston Churchill, former British Prime Minister, had learning difficulties in school. He was quoted with saying, "I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race." It is essential that,
as teachers, we identify student early who struggle and provide support, rather than make assumptions about home life, work ethic and attitude. As one of my pre-service teachers reminded us in discussion, “You know what happens when you assume?” . . . . I'll let you finish the phrase.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Getting to Know You: Using Children's Literature to Introduce Working with Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students

“There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children's book.” ― Philip Pullman

I was pondering how to introduce strategies and techniques for working with culturally and linguistically diverse students to my pre-service teachers. But beyond looking at English language learners as a group I wanted my students to personally identify with children who may be very different from themselves. I wanted them to be thinking about questions such as: What does it feel like to be an English Language Learner in a classroom? What are some of the hopes and fears of students who struggle to speak English in our classrooms? How do English language learners navigate in a society that is mostly monolingual?

Children's literature has the unique characteristic of making a complex topics very personal and visual. I selected several illustrated children's books and asked groups of pre-service teachers to read the book together and summarize the storyline, list what they learned about English language learners, bilingual and/or immigrant students from the story, and how could they use the book in their own classrooms. This provided the students a repertoire of books to use with their students but also new perspectives of what it's like to be English language learner in American schools.

Class Mom – Written by Margaret Mc Namara; Illustrated by Mike Gordon

Summary: Nia's class is having a party and Nia volunteers her mom to be in charge, even though she believes her Mama will not want to be in charge because she doesn't speak much English. Throughout the weekend Nia did not tell her mom about party. After much agony, and pretending that she was sick the morning of the party, Nia finally tells her mom about the party. However Mama pulls through and throws a great party.

What the Students Learned: We learned that parents of English language learners may have a hard time volunteering in the classroom if they speak another language. What we, as teachers, may perceive as a lack of involvement does not mean disinterest. We also learned that it is important for students to connect their languages and cultures to the work in the classroom.

Using the Book: We could use this book to show students how everyone's family is different and how parents may speak many languages.

In English, Of Course – Written by Josephine Nobisso; Illustrated by Dasha Ziborova

Summary: Josephine just moved to the Bronx from Italy. Her teacher asked all the students to introduce themselves. The students were from all over the world and each began to introduce themselves, but Josephine was confused by what they said and how they said it. When Josephine tried to explain where she was from Naples Italy, the students and teacher did not understand her. Through patience, gestures and pictures the teacher helped Josephine tell her story and learn new words in English.

What the Students Learned: We learned that the misconception of language can scare some students. English language learners may have a hard time coming up with sentences and the correct words to use, but they have a lot of ideas in their head. As teachers we need to provide patients and resources to students to help them build their language skills and confidence

Using the Book: By using this book with our students in the classroom, they may also recognize that students who may not speak English very well may still have a lot to say and teach us.

The Rainbow Tulip - Written by Pat Mora; Illustrated by Elizabeth Sayles

Summary: This book is about a young girl named Stella. She and her family are from Mexico. Her mother and father do not speak any English. Stella and her younger brothers are bilingual. Stella feels like she and her family are different at the Mayday Parade. Her costume is multicolored, and everyone else's costume is a single color. Her parents about hard time interacting with the other parent, making it hard for Stella to feel accepted. Stella performs well during the Mayday dance, but is frustrated that her parents cannot talk to the teacher. At home Stella admit that she likes being the only rainbow tulip but it was hard too. Her mother answers that it is hard to be different that it is both sweet and sour like sherbet.

What the Students Learned: We learned that at times English language learners may feel that it is difficult to become accepted in the classroom. Because they might feel that they are very different from their classmates, they may feel frustrated, scared, or shy. As teachers, we need to help create an environment that accepts that differences and celebrate what makes us unique.

Using the Book: We can use this book to help students express some of their feelings about what it is like to feel different. In addition it may help our students be more courageous when they need to do difficult things.

My Name is Yoon – Written my HelenRecorvits; Illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska

Summary:: The story is about a Korean girl and her transition to American schools. At first she did not like moving to America and how everything was different. When she wrote her name in Korean it was beautiful and meant Shining Wisdom. In English her name was Yoon, which she found ugly. For many days in school she learned new words and tried out new identities such as cat, bird and cupcake. When she began to make friends and feel like her teacher like her she was then able to write her English name Yoon.

What the Students Learned: we learned that it can be hard to adapt to new school and language at first. Taking on an English name may make it easier for them in school but it might not feel right to the student. English language learners may need to create new identities for themselves. In addition English language learners may be confused by teachers instructions and do things very differently.

Using the Book: Although the book shows an English language learner struggling, we can use the book to show that everybody struggles with somethings. In addition, this book may encourage students to be more sympathetic when other students struggle in school and show the importance of friendship.

Yoko Writes Her Name – Written and Illustrated by Rosemary Wells

Summary: Yoko is an English language learner she is picked on for not knowing how to write her name in English because she only knows how to write in Japanese. She is frustrated by this fact until a classmate helps her learn the English alphabet. This same friend thinks it is really neat that Yoko knows a secret language, Japanese. When the other classmates see Yoko and her friend writing in Japanese the rest want to learn it also and they decide to make Japanese their second class language. When two classmates don't learn how to write their names in Japanese Yoko teaches them how.

What the Students Learned: we learned that can be difficult to adapt to a new learning environment. It takes time and patience but everyone can benefit from the differences.

Using the Book: We can use the book as a resource that shows how to value the richness of different cultures in our classroom. We can use it to show students that it is okay to branch out and get to know something you are unfamiliar with.

The Other Side: How Kids Live in a California Latino Neighborhood – Written by Kathleen Krull; Photographs by David Hautzig

Summary: This nonfiction book the the story of how two Mexican-American families left Mexico and moved to California for better opportunities. It shows, through photographs, what daily life is like for many immigrant families including some of the struggles they have in school, trying to preserve their culture and heritage, having children translate for their parents, and the importance of family, both in California and back home. It also highlights some of the unique celebrations and holidays that are celebrated by many Latino families

What the Students Learned: We learned that it is important to include and celebrate children's cultures in the classroom beyond the traditional mainstream culture. We also learned about how it can sometimes be frustrating and isolating to be an English language learner and immigrant to the United States.

Using the Book: If we have English language learners in our classroom. This book might help other students feel more connected with their peers. The reader will also understand why some immigrants wish to come to America and the importance of preserving home language and culture.

Class Discussion

Many of the books dealt with issues of identity. English language learners are past with so much more than just learning English. They also have to negotiate the borderlands of their home culture and school culture and define themselves with in this borderland. The choice of language and language use is an obvious identification mark, yet students may not completely identify with the culture of the language.

Many students also recognized that the parents of English language learners may often be misrepresented. Just because the parents are not at parent conferences, volunteering for class parties, or helping students with homework, it does not mean the parents are uninterested in their students education. There may be many factors that might limit parent involvement in school including different cultural expectations, language barriers, and demands on time through family and work.

As teachers, we need to build on the strengths that students bring to the classroom, culturally and linguistically. To do this we need to get to know our students and not make assumptions of who they are or what they can do.

As a teacher educator, I am thrilled that my pre-service teachers came to recognize these very important issues when working with culturally and linguistically diverse students. It may have been more efficient to provide a lecture with PowerPoint, but I believe through the words and illustrations in these children's books the lessons the students learned will be better integrated into their understanding.