Sunday, November 20, 2005

Adolescent Literacy

Kylene Beers

Kylene Beers was a very entertain and candid in her presentation. She asked us to think of something we are REALLY bad at, then imagine doing that for 8 hours a day. This is what many students experience most of their educational careers. If there is something we don't do well, we stop doing it. Often, the students' litany of excuses come from not having the necessary skills to do the work, not because they are lazy. Struggling students know they are struggling, they know they are different and isolated.

There were so many strategies and ideas Kylene gave. Here are some links to peruse:

All America Reads: About Kylene Beers and Reading Strategies
Heinemann Books: Author Profile
When Kids Can't Read What Teachers Can Do - book review

Linda Rief

When I was a first-year teacher, I taught in a very traditional school and had a very traditional mentor teacher. I was frustrated by the restrictive environment my students were in. I read Nancy Atwell’s seminal book, In the Middle, but was overwhelmed with her perfection and organization. I knew I couldn’t tackle that. Luckily I picked up Seeking Diversity and saw a clear vision of what I could do. With tears of gratitude and awe, I wrote Linda a letter expressing my great hopes and dreams. Within a month, she wrote in return a warm, supportive and encouraging letter; she even sent a CD and program of a musical her students had written. This was the mentor teacher that I wanted. I have read and reread that letter numerous times over the last 10 years, gaining hope and vision each time. At NCTE 2005, I finally was able to meet the woman that has truly inspired my teaching. Her presentation was awesome and she is as gracious in person and she was in text.

There are numerous resources from her, each one as good as the last:
Heinemann Books: Author Profile
Write in the Middle from Annenberg
In Conversation with Linda Rief

I would strong suggest a thorough reading of all her books. Her ideas and lessons are clear, to the point and easy to adapt to your situation.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Blogging: Class Blogs: Giving Students a Public Voice

Bernie Heidkamp

Bernie Heidkamp presented some interesting ideas about blogs and blogging. He believes that blogs are not ready to replace the four walled classroom, but they do reveal some limitations of the real classroom. Blogs are available after class is finished and allows students to interact with structure and thought time built in. An advantage of blogs is that people can post to the internet without having technical knowledge of programming, so it is quick, easy and current. The shy student may be more comfortable in a written format, but still has the opportunity to interact. Blogs allow for linking to other content on the intenet, which expands the conversation beyond the classroom even more. It is a public voice, so students have a larger audience and may influence students to see themselves more as readers and writers. Blogs are searchable by Google

However, blogs should not take the place of writing instruction and other forms of writing – it is an extension and different style. Compared to an oral conversation, blogs are stronger because students have the opportunity to think, provide more support for their arguments, and revise their ideas before posting.

According to the PEW Internet and American Life Project 57% of teenagers are online, 19% create their own blogs, and 38% read blog. Blogger are more likely to create other online material.

One of the most popular blogs is “Talking Points Memo” by Joshua Micah Marshall. It is a blog about the political scene in Washington, DC by an insider.

In Bernie's classroom, blogging is used as part of the participation grade.

Amy Majorawitz

Amy use blogs for several reasons. First, her school has a laptop program, so there is a strong push to use technology. She feels blogs help create a community between students and teachers. She gets to know her students better. Finally, she also believes blogging helps students find their voice.

In her experience, Amy found that students loved to blog. The traditional journal is written for the teacher so students usually said what was expected. She also found that students discussed ideas and issues that they might not otherwise express. The comments were supportive and helpful. She saw students using this space to work through their personal problems. She has two basic rules: 1) No names or personal information 2) No rants or belittling others. Based on her goals for the blog, Amy excepts informal, email-style language. Students receive participation points for thoughtful comments.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Middle Level Mosaic

For most of my teaching career, I’ve been standing on the shoulders of giants. In the Middle School Mosaic, I was finally able to meet the giants I’ve been standing on – Nancy Atwell, Tony Romano, Janet Allen, Jim Burke, Kylene Beers. It was like walking into a museum - each time I turned around, I saw another masterpiece.

Janet Allen

Janet Allen began the session with “Writing Between the Lines.” She focused on how to get kids to write. She recommended the book Freedom Writer's Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them by The Freedom Writer's and Erin Cruwell. First, the teacher needs to met the kids at their level, not where they “should” be. There are some basic lessons that all student writers need to have:
1)Engagement and purpose
2)Getting started
3)Using word banks
4)Descriptive writing fluency
5)Understanding forms and functions of writing
6)Specific craft lessons
7)Grammar, usage and editing

She also stated that student choice only works when students know the forms, styles, and function of writing. If they don't have the background for these things, the teacher needs to do some explicit instruction, otherwise students will flounder. Students should show improvement with instruction, if they don't the teaching needs to change. When teaching revision, the questions she poses to students is, “What would you do if the teacher wasn't here? How would you apply this strategy?” This fosters independent use of strategies.

If you are not effective, it doesn't matter how efficient you are!

Tony Romano

Language has tremendous power, writing describes the world, argues for what we believe, frames our thinking, and changes how we think. Believing that you can fill the empty page takes faith and fearlessness. Part of our job as teachers of writing is to create the fearlessness. The choice of words determine how we think about things. All writing si creative – even forming an argument and describing a chemistry lab. The creativity is in the choice and arrangement of words. Language is the mother, not the handmaiden of thought.

In prompted writing, many students don't know what to write about or how to get their ideas. A writing teacher needs to open their own minds to the students to show the process. Interrupt students in the process of writing to have them examine their thinking, justify their choices, a critic their performance helps them be more cognizant of the process. A quick guide to writing to a prompt:
Focus – Start small – if the subject isn't given, you need to create that focus. Think about a character and his/her trait.
Organization – From the smallest part, a sentence, to paragraph and the entire piece, the writer needs to have a plan of organization. This should happen before the writing begins and will evolve through the writing.
Development – Strong examples and sensory details a necessary. When looking at the topic, visualize the ideas like a movie in your head.
Purpose – Everything is an argument, you have to prove a point. It could be persuasive, cause/effect, descriptive – but you are still trying to convince the reader of something.

Good readers tend to make these connections more easily. Reading feeds writing and writing feeds reading. It is a circle of cause and effect.

Nancy Atwell

Nancy has a new book coming out entitled “Naming the World” which is a great resource of over 200 poems and lesson ideas. I saw samples at the Heinemann booth and was very impressed! Her presentation focused on poetry and it was a pleasure to see this master teacher in action.
Poetry is important because it teaches 1) good writing 2) close reading 3) a structure to help students imagine what they will be as an adult. She begins every class with a poem. Kids have to have early success with writing in order to be motivated to stick with writing. Poetry is a good start as it is a short, easily managed length of text. It is not overwhelming. Poetry is especially good for boys because it: 1) helps them define and describe emotions 2) illustrate relationships 3) defines identity 4) preserves a moment in time for later reflection and remembrance 5) helps develop critical thinking.

Write Around

This was a neat activity that was a great way to reflect and summarize the Mosaic. It is a timed conversation, in writing that is passed to others for further comments. The timing begins short, about a minute, and as the reading becomes longer, the time increased. Each person has a sheet of paper. They write their initial and then spend about a minute reflecting on the topic given. At the end of the time, the sheet is passed to the next person. That person reads the writing before, writes their initial and then spend about a minute responding. This cycle continues with allotted time getting slightly longer. Three rules:
1) Always write your initial beside your writing
2) Use the entire time for writing.
3) Don't talk when passing.

I had the opportunity to express my overwhelming appreciation for the Mosaic and get to know two other wonderful people. In the future, I will always attend the Mosaic and would strongly encourage all others to attend this session. It was one of the true highlights of the conference for me.

Cyber English

Cyberenglish: Computers as Common Ground
Ted Nellen, Dawn Hogue and Patricia Schulze

Several years ago I stumbled on Ted Nellen’s website for his CyberEnglish class. I was fascinated by the idea of using technology seamlessly for all aspects of language arts. During this panel presentation, I was able to see two different CyberEnglish classrooms using technology for different purposes.

Mr. Nellen’s class begins with a 10 minute whole group meeting. During this time they discuss the agenda of work, review previous work for grammar and revision needs, and assign new projects. Generally students have at least three separate projects to be working on. The students need to manage their time effectively to complete these projects. The classroom has at least one computer per student, an interactive whiteboard, printers, scanners and a projector. Mr. Nellen believes that the extensive use of technology enhances his students’ quality of work and their engagement in the work. He presented several studies to support this. Web-based content and publication helps students think of text in new ways through the use of links and multi-media. In a CyberEnglish classroom there is shared authority between teacher and student, more freedom and creativity, and a de-centering of text. The style of research is changing in the world through the use of email, MUDs, and Moos. Researchers can instantly connect with experts and other classrooms.

Cyber English: The Practice

Ms. Hogue’s purpose of using technology with students is to create connections. She uses blogs as personal journals and expects students to write and respond to each other. She showed several examples of her students’ blogs and included the basics of how to set up a blog along with assignment criteria.
Cyber Engligh 9

Here is another Cyber English classroom
Cybercomp 10

A nice article by the three presentors, published by NCTE

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Frank McCourt

Years ago Angela’s Ashes hit the top of the book chart. Unfortunately, I was stubborn and decided that since everyone was reading it, I wasn’t going to be sucked into a publicity hype and read it. Then the movie came out and I didn’t take the time to see it. This week I found out how much I’ve been missing. Frank McCourt was the keynote speaker for the NCTE conference and I can’t remember ever seeing a more lively and engaging storyteller. He just recently published Teacher Man and used this opportunity to discuss the state of teaching in the U.S. and his own experiences in the classroom.

The beginning of his presentation, as he said, was his soap box time. He asked several questions and spend time giving his opinion. Who but the teacher knows best what goes on in the classroom? Teaching is high drama – hunger, horniness, break-ups, arguments, deaths – all these things come into the classroom with the children. To ignore that students have emotions that affect their performance is unrealistic. Teaching and learning is not a mechanical activity; it is a connection between teacher, student and content. The students assess the teacher immediately and are accurate judges of character. In addition, each class is different and each day is different. There isn’t a formula that will work with all classes all the time. Politicians and policy makers don’t understand the intricacies of this relationship and what it takes to get through the other issues to get to the learning.

This leads to the second question: When did we give over the business of education to the politicians? When did the politicians “hijack” the classrooms of our students? During elections, politicians go into classrooms, push the teacher aside and read to the children. This shows that they “know” what it takes to be a teacher and what goes on in a classroom. From this microscopic experience, the politicians take it upon themselves to allocate money, determine curriculum, and create policies of testing – reward and punishment. Why do we allow so much government interference in education when we can’t conceive of doing the same in medicine or law? We must certainly hate our children since we are testing them to death. This is sucking all the joy and creativity out of learning.

Finally, why aren’t teachers on talk shows? Why don’t they get the recognition they deserve? Mr. McCourt stated he was on the morning show on NBC with Katie Couric and asked this question. Politicians, actors, sports figures get recognition both for the good and bad that they do. Teachers have amazing stories – of inspiration, tragedy, and excellence. When the politicians are voted out, the actors are no longer making movies, and the sports figures retire, the teacher will still be in the classroom influencing the next generation. Teaching is not a glamorous profession. It isn’t “sexy”, but it is the most important job of all. The attrition rate for new teachers is tremendous. The issues of educational theory and content management are covered in teacher prep courses, but the real information – how to judge a kid’s mood, tuning in to the critical moments, and how to make a strong first impression – these things are learned through trial and error. There is an unrealistic image created by the media of the classroom experience. Just looking at any famous teacher movie – they have one class, have time to reflect and inspire, have lots of materials, and the kids are eager to learn. The Teach for American program gets people into the classroom as a charity program, but they don’t stay. They put in their time and move on to their real jobs – jobs that pay better and have better benefits.

On the opposite spectrum is the idea that teaching is easy and that it doesn’t take much to be a good teacher. People are insulting when they say, “Oh, you’re a teacher. You have so much time off, all the holidays and summer vacations. It must be an easy job.” Or even worse, the stickers that say, “Those who can – do. Those who can’t – teach. Teaching is a 24 hour a day job. It follows you wherever you go and you are thinking and planning constantly. The salaries are low compared to other profession and the respect is non-existent.

Mr. McCourt’s speech was interrupted several times by enthusiastic applause. Sadly, he was preaching to the choir. Everyone in the ballroom recognized the important work teachers do and the frustrations of working within an environment that does not value our professionalism. Hopefully, with the publication of Teacher Man and Mr. McCourt’s publicity tour, the stories of the teacher will become as important as the latest movie or the hottest sport star. When teachers are valued as much as actors and sports stars, when teachers are supported and respected, it will be the children and the future of the country that will benefit the most.

Susan Vreeland

Art and literature are what makes us human - shows our passions and despairs. Both forms slow down time to give us the chance to reflect on our experiences and, hopefully, learn from them and find beauty in them. Susan Vreeland combines both artistic forms in her books. At the Secondary Sectional Get-Together, she was the main speaker and a true storyteller.

To begin the session, each table was given an activity to complete. A stiff piece of paper was folded in thirds, to make a triptych. One section had an excerpt from one of Susan's books, one section had a piece of artwork which was related, and the three needed to have a poem. This was the topic for discussion at the table. There were 4-5 poems to choose from and after reading and discussing, we chose two of them. The poems were from different eras and poets and each gave a slightly different view of the situation. This was the purpose of the activity – to actively engage in the analysis of the art and literature.

Taking the podium, Susan's tan suit and black hat told me that this was going to be a unique experience. She alternated between prepared remarks, off-the-cuff comments, and interpretations of her writing. I was so fascinated, I forgot to take notes. In her experience, the way to students' attention is through their hearts. Poetry, literature and art speaks to this need to express and share our emotions. She shared a poem written about the day her hair fell out from chemotherapy. It wasn't about the cancer, it was a love story – the support and endurance of that love. There were few dry eyes in the room. Having read that poem to her own English class, she made an emotional connection to them. Later she read an excerpt from Girl in Hyacinth Blue that expressed the longing of a young girl (Vemeer's daughter) to paint, however, based on the time period, was not allowed to learn. Each vignette in the story spoke of the strong emotions we all have, yet often are reluctant, or unable to express.

I too, now feel a personal connection to Susan Vreeland. Her voice, the art and poetry swirled through my head as I boarded the T (electric train) to return to my hotel. Hopefully, this weekend I'll be able to pick up her books.

Life Studies
The Forest Lover
The Passion of Artemisia

NCTE in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh – Steel Town – and the host for the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention. Although language arts is my specialty as a teacher and I've always been a reader, I have not had the opportunity to attend this convention before. This year, being a bit closer to the States and having a more reasonable teaching schedule, I figured it was time check this convention out.

Unfortunately, I have not found Pittsburgh to be a convention friendly city. The hotels downtown, next to the convention center, are expensive. When your school is not paying for the trip, you tend to look for something more moderate. However, having a hotel outside of downtown means trying to figure out the public transportation. After living overseas for almost 10 years, it irritates me that I have difficulty using public transportation in my home country. The schedules were unreasonable – once an hour in the evening and not at all on Sundays. Taxis are available, for a long wait and more moola.

Being mid-November, Christmas is oozing out of every pore – what happened to waiting until December? A beautiful nativity stands outside the US Steel building, a massive tree will be lit in the center of an ice rink, and gingerbread cities are displayed in windows. A a sure commercial sign – Egg Nog Latte from Starbucks!

A cold snap blew through Pittsburgh. Not being prepared, I'm off to Kaufmann's for some fuzzy gloves and a hat.