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  When they languish on the “to do” pile, they tend not to get done and as time passes, the piece becomes out of date.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.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Life Lessons in Children's Literature

Sometimes a book finds you – rather than you finding a book, and The Three Questions (based on a story by Leo Tolstoy) by Jon J. Muth is a book that found me. In the midst of looking for other topics, my eye was drawn to the muted water color and the fact that there is a children's book based on Tolstoy - not an easy author to understand. I settled down on the floor to enjoy the story.

Nikolai wants to be a good person and sets out to find the answers to three questions: When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do? 

Like most quest stories, Nikolai consulted several creatures: Sonya, the heron; Gogol, the monkey, and Pushkin, the dog. Each gave answers according to their own perspectives and experiences and their answers did not satisfy Nikolai. Figuring Leo, the wise turtle, might have better answers, Nikolai went to him. Leo was digging and Nikolai offered to help. In the midst of digging, Nikolia heard a cry for help and rescued an injured panda and her cub and cared for them. Through these experiences, Leo observed that Nikolia had the answers to his own questions, “Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.”

Just recently a teacher mentioned how discouraged she was with teaching - the Common Core mandates, a district imposed literacy curriculum, and general disrespect of the teaching profession. She said, “There are days that I wonder if it matters. What are we doing?” I reminded her of the tale of the boy walking down the beach and finding an old man throwing the stranded starfish back into the water. There were hundreds of the starfish on the beach and the boy exclaimed, “Why are you doing this? There is no way you can save them all!” The old man turned to the boy, while picking up another, and said, “It matters to this one.”

The teachers I know matter. Each and every day they focus on doing the best they can for each child in their classroom – the ones standing by their side – even in the midst of overwhelming mandates, testing and general discourtesy. It matters – to each child – each day – every day.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

First Day Fears and Hopes

Another school year has begun, and this year, I'm teaching undergrad and graduate courses. But, it is still a new school year, and whether I'm teaching at a new school or just being introduced to a new group of students, I still have the first day jitters. And, I believe, if I ever lose this trait, it is time to hang up my teaching hat. I think the jitters are important to remind myself to constantly be learning about myself, my students, and my content and pedagogy.

Like the actor's nightmare (showing up on stage and not knowing what play is being performed) I think there are teachers' nightmares. On my first day with my new practicum students, I shared my first day jitters and my yearly nightmare of not knowing what classes I'm teaching or having students standing on desks and throwing paper airplanes at me. I hear some teachers have the nightmare of showing up naked to class, though I've never had that one. As my practicum students move into their first classroom experiences, I wanted them to know that anxiety of new experiences is okay, but it shouldn't be paralyzing. I found a great illustrated children's book that really exemplifies this point.

Mr. Ouchy's First Day by Barbara G. Hennessy is about a new fourth-grade teacher on his first day. Like many children, he prepares for the first day by buying new shoes, getting a haircut, has trouble sleeping thinking about the first day, and gets up early to make sure he is on time. At first, the children tease him about his unusual name, but as he begins to engage them in figuring out time, the children begin to discuss how a minute can be interpreted differently under various circumstances. And suddenly, it is recess time! The book then jumps to the end of the day and Mr. Ouchy and the children set goals for learning for the year. The children want to learn how to whistle, swing on a trapeze, train a cat, or make doughnuts. When Mr. Ouchy returns home, he is tired but anticipating the great learning for the year and begins to read up on the children's interests and dreams of his students accomplishing their goals.

After sharing the book, I asked my practicum students to write down a fear, a hope, a question, and something they hope to learn through the year on post it notes. On the white board, I drew a chart with each sectioned labels. As the students thought of something, they could post it, and other students could read various responses. The ideas ranged from very practical (What school will I be at?) to very broad (How do I engage children of all abilities and ages?). Many were concerned about managing a classroom and they wanted to be the best teacher possible. Others wrote about their fear of failure and wanting to be an inspiring teacher.

Although the hopes and fears don't change much from year to year – whether you are a student or a teacher, I think it is important to acknowledge that the first day of school is a day of both excitement and anxiety. Really, this is true for the first day of any new experience. During the roller-coaster of emotions, it is good to know that you are not alone and that these feelings are completely normal. I saw a poster once that said, “The only difference between fear and excitement is your attitude about it. - Unknown.” In the fear and excitement of the first day, I hope to encourage my students to focus on the excitement and let the engagement in lessons alleviate the fear.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Finding Beauty and Harmony in What is Simple, Imperfect and Natural

I was browsing for books to use with my undergrad class on multicultural education and happened on Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein and illustrated by Ed Young. I was immediately drawn into this unusual book that combines collage techniques, with a narrative story and haikus by Basho and Shiki. It is truly an amazing book that I re-read just for the delight of the language, thoughtfulness, and illustrations. In addition, the book reads in an unusual format – it opens up for top to bottom reading, rather than traditional left to right.

The main character is a cat names Wabi Sabi, who wants to know what her names means. However, no one, not even the cat's master, could explain the meaning of wabi sabi. So the cat began to ask all the creatures around her and each give her a different explanation – Snowball, the cat; Rascal, the dog; and a bird, who tells Wabi Sabi to seek out Kosho, the wise monkey. In her travels, Wabi Sabi encounters the bright lights of the city, the cool beauty of the forest, the warmth of friendship, the pleasure of not hurrying, and the joy of returning home. This all is wabi sabi.

Wabi sabi, according to the end pages, is an ancient Chinese philosophy that shaped Japanese culture to emphasize simplicity over extravagance. The format of the book wonderfully illustrates this philosophy.

Here is an interview with the author and illustrator -Wabi Sabi

There's a great educators guide at Hachette Book Group.

In the past, I've taught ancient civilization and used calligraphy painting and haiku techniques to help children understand these cultures. This would have been an amazing book to enhance these units. In addition, it helps me be mindful of the beauty that is inherent in the simplest of things – the dew on the grass, the redness of berries, and the foam on my coffee. All these things are beautiful in themselves.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Valuing Perspectives & Opening Networks

Today is the last day of blog postings for #cyberPD discussing chapters 5 and 6 of Who Owns the Learning by Alan November. Laura Komos will be hosting the event today on her blog, Ruminate and Invigorate.  Other participants are posting their links in the comment space and on Twitter with #cyberPD.  Plus, there is a "jog" of all the postings, if you would like to catch up, at Who Owns the Learning? #cyberPD 2013.  Here are my thoughts as I finish the book and think about the future.

“We need to start teaching our students global empathy by developing their ability to understand and appreciate other points of view” (November, 2012, p. 65-66). This is a relevant and essential recommendation from November, and although he focuses on the role of students as global communicators and collaborators, I think developing empathy and respect locally is just as important. Students are living in a world of popular and social media, new programs and cartoons that value and highlight aggressive, egotistical and opinionated personalities that insite conflict and disharmony. Just look at how the cast members of Big Brother, Survivor and other “reality” shows are selected – the goal is to create as much drama and conflict as possible. Where are the models of adults engaging in authentic dialogue that seeks to understand - not just win? Even Congress, in their role as representatives of the people, focus more on party lines and winning than on authentic debate and collaboration.

Narrowing our view points through technology – I knew that Google “personalized” searches, but I guess I didn't realize how extreme this narrowing has gotten. Early in my teaching career, I taught students how to use multiple search engines, because they each searched differently. Now, there is pretty much only Google. Yes, it is easier to find exactly what you want, but as November observed, this develops an over-inflated sense of rightness. I need to be confronted with alternative perspectives to be able to clarify my own understandings, not just confirm. November also commented how the potential of the World Wide Web for building connections and opening up multiple points of views has actually narrowed it more. It is really easy to find your own niche and ignore alternatives.  I've noticed this with my own use of Twitter. Like many others, I tend to follow the people that I have a lot in common with – middle school teachers, literacy people, technology focused educators – but that leaves huge gaps in seeing alternative perspectives. Social media can be a great venue for support – but maybe I need to challenge myself to become “friends” with less like-minded people and expand my own perspective taking.

“Every day, I have to decide if I will write for my teachers or publish to the world” (November, 2012, p. 69). This statement, from a student who wrote prolifically on a fanzine site, but not much at school, really resonated for me. Why would students want to write for an audience of one, when the world could be their audience? Like November stated earlier – how many assignments end up in the trash versus making a long-term impact on a student. As he stated in chapter 6, he remembers experiences from his own schooling, not the tests. Like Vygotsky, I believe that learning is a social process that focuses on individuals making meaning of the world through their interactions with others. It isn't the paper or the test – learning is the process of gathering information, evaluating and synthesizing it to make meaning of it. We have focused too much on highlighting the solo work of students, and not the collaborative process of learning.

Here is a YouTube Video from a 7th grade student, posted in 2009. She describes her personal learning environment. When I first saw it, I was impressed. Now, I'm depressed, as it is 4 years later, and there has been very little support for students (and teachers) to develop these types of learning networks. What are we afraid of?

As November reminds us about what Daniel Pink has noted “the more we grade children on creative work, the less they'll do” (p. 83). Argh! Grading, assessment and evaluation. This is such a long and difficult debate and issue. There are so many political and social aspects of this issue too. But, as November observed before (building on Pink's work) the motivation to learn and take action happens when there is an authentic purpose, autonomy, and mastery. It isn't the reward of grades, money, bonuses or even praise. Real motivation comes from within.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Shift of Control

In chapters three and four, November describes two roles for students – that of scribe and researcher. Although new technologies provide different avenues for publication, audience and sources of information, these roles are not new. Remember the classic adage by Benjamin Franklin, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Pre-digital times, I knew several teachers who sent home student-produced newsletters that described the activities of the week. Granted, in those days, the audience and feedback was not as immediate as a class blog. Which, of course, is part of what makes using technology so powerful.

Like November states, I also believe that having a public forum and audience for writing provides motivation for students to not only write, but to care more about their writing. The recognition from peers, parents and others is more interesting than a single grade from a teacher. On Twitter, I've seen many teachers ask Followers to check out and comment on their students' websites or blogs. I know students love tracking who had comments and where they are from. Many years ago, I had my 10thgrade students use a blog to learn about and respond to Cather in the Rye. This was a group of students who were reluctant to write about their reading in traditional formats like reading response journals or double entry format, but wrote multiple paragraphs when writing on the blog. Besides having a public forum and audience, there was a sense of legacy, as November stated, that encouraged them to revise and take pride in their writing.

For me, the student role of scribe and researcher doesn't seem very radical, but as November states, the challenge “will be redefining the role of learner as contributor, and building a collaborative learning culture” (p. 5). For too long, we have designed learning spaces that require isolated, individual learning and support competition rather than collaboration. This, I believe, is the bigger shift of control – to redefine the classroom expectations, not just introduce technology. And, as November also states, teachers need to do more networking and sharing of their work with their peers. I just completed a study with two third-grade teachers who team-taught in a workshop format. One of the most important catalysts to changing their practice was consistent, collaborative reflection. As teachers, we need to not only open our classrooms, but open our thinking to others.

As November talked about the role of student as researcher, I was thinking about how teachers typically respond to student questions – and not just in K-12 schools but in higher ed. too. I think the most typical response to a student question is to just give the answer. As a culture, we expect teachers and instructors to be experts in their area, and their role is to impart that knowledge to others. The second response I've noticed is the command to “Look it up.” This assumes that students know how to look things up – either in print or online. And, as November found, many students, though digital natives, have very limited repertories of search strategies. This past year I asked my students to research a family artifact. But, I spent almost two weeks in preparation to practice search strategies and evaluation of websites. It was a little frustrating for both students and parents, because they wanted “results” immediately. But, as November showed, there are a lot of bogus websites available, and the top picks of Google aren't necessarily the best. November talked about the website that denied the Holocaust, but here are two other websites that look legitimate but are hoaxes that I have used with students:

The final, less common answer, is the one November illustrated.  Modeling a stance of inquiry, the teacher would say, "How can we find that answer?"

As a graduate student, I returned to university after numerous years as a classroom teacher. I felt overwhelmed by the amount of information and terms I didn't know and I felt stupid to ask, because it looked like everyone else understood. Some professors were supportive of having open laptops in class, other professors felt it was rude to have students typing away during class. In supportive classrooms, I was constantly looking up things I didn't understand and was afraid to show my ignorance. Because of this, I was better able to participate in discussion and understand the material. I try to remember this when I'm teaching.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Education is life itself

As I was reading the first chapters of Who Owns the Learning by Alan November, I was impressed by a couple of quotes that I'd like to ponder here. But, the principles of ownership, purpose, authenticity, autonomy, and self-directed, independent work seemed to stand out in the chapter.

“Education is not preparation for life; Education is life.” - John Dewey. Too often I've heard both teachers and parents explain to their children that what they are doing in school will prepare them for middle school, high school, college or the real world. I know I've used the phrase too, “In high school, your teachers will expect you to know how to write a five-paragraph essay, so we're learning it now in middle school.” But, how authentic is teaching a particular skill, just so it can be mastered in school but not applied in life?

Learning is a social interactive enterprise. In the last year, I had the opportunity to implement a reading/writing workshop in my middle school classroom. We had a set of laptop computers, and a few students brought their own laptops. At the beginning of class, we would meet as a whole group to work on some grammar skills, introduce and practice a new skill, strategy or genre, and review the list of things to do. Usually, students had a choice of activities that including reading, responding, writing, researching or creating a visual response. Then, the students would have workshop time to choose an activity and work on it. Students would grab the computers and spread out across the room. Frequently sitting on the floor with their back against the wall in groups of two or three. As they read or wrote or found an interesting article or fact, they would share with their classmates. I circulated to check in with students, revise with students, or just listen to the conversations. When visitors came into the room, they frequently had trouble finding me, because I was on the floor with the students reading a website or giving feedback on a piece of writing. There was a quiet buzz of activity in the classroom. Students read deeper and wrote more thoughtfully when they had the freedom to talk and share when and how they wanted. Were some students off task at time? Of course, but overall, I think students were more engaged in what they were doing because they had the opportunity to choose their work, their work space, and how they would work.

“We lost the value of children as contributors to the culture of school” (November, 2012, p. 5). A few years ago in a graduate class, I completed a discourse analysis of a set of emails between myself and the parents of one of my students. In George Lakoff's (1980) book Metaphors We Live By, he contends that the metaphors we use every day, often unconsciously, give an indication of how we conceptualize reality. (A summary of Lakoff's chapters 1-4).  In my analysis of the emails I sent to these parents, I conceptualized school as a place of business – with assigned tasks, assigned due dates, and evaluations of performance. I used phrases like, “The report was due on [date] and I haven't even seen a rough draft. Since the work is so late, there will be a deduction in points on the final grade.” However, I was not alone in conceptualizing school as a business or factory. It is the dominate metaphor for American schools ever since Taylor's model of efficiency was introduced into schools which produced a factory-like environment for students. Teacher's Mind Resources has an interesting series about the metaphors of education called Transforming Education Part 3: School as Factory: The Greatest Barrier to Transformation. In the factory model, the contribution of the students are not important -  the efficiency of measuring students against a standard or benchmark is the goal.

November suggests that we need to let go of existing structures of education to provide spaces for students that give autonomy, master, purpose, self-directedness, and independence to students in their learning. But, I have another area that I think we need to examine. What is valued as knowledge in schools? And, what happens when different types of knowledge are valued by different families, teachers, and administration?

Friday, June 14, 2013

#CyberPD "Who Owns the Learning" by Alan November

The #cyberpd event will consist of three parts:

July 3rd: Chapters 1 and 2 - Hosted by Cathy Mere at Reflect and Refine: Building a Learning Community

July 10th: Chapters 3 and 4 - Hosted here at My Primary Passion

July 17th: Chapters 5 and 6 - Hosted by Laura Komos at Our Camp Read-A-Lot

Date to be determined: Final chat about the book on Twitter using the hashtag #cyberpd

You can participate in several ways:

  • You can write a blog post with your thoughts about the section we are reading for the week and add the link to your blog in the comments of the host blog.
  • You can add your thoughts directly in the comments of the host blog.
  • You can share your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #cyberpd.
  • You can come up with another way to share you ideas. We would love to see a new, creative way to join the conversation.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Laws of Conservation of Pain and Joy

Chris Wejr has a thought-provoking post entitled “Share Who You Are, Let People In”. I remember as a new teacher trying hard to look and sound older than I was, that I hardly ever shared my personal life with my students. I was afraid they would think of me as their friend, rather than their teacher, which I was warned about in my education classes. However, when I taught overseas, it became evident that I needed to reveal myself – my experiences, perspectives and biases – to my students to be able to build common understandings. My students' experiences were significantly different from my own and I knew I couldn't assume commonalities. I now realize how na├»ve my early teaching self was, thinking that even my American students' experiences were similar to my own.

Students are perceptive and know when you are having an off day. In my experience, when mutual trust and respect is built between the teacher and students, the students will be sympathetic on those few days that you are not on top of your game. I remember when I received word that my grandmother had passed away, I didn't have the words to express it to my students without breaking down, but they sensed my emotions and helped me see that it is okay to be vulnerable in the classroom. It allowed them to be more vulnerable too. I remember that day as one of reverence and deep conversation, in a classroom that was typically filled with activity and noise. I appreciated the intuitiveness of those students.

At the same time, students need to see your real self – the one that also has to do “homework” and chores, just like them. As I've been working on my dissertation, I've shared my struggles with writing and thinking with my students, to help them see that their own homework struggles are not unusual. They were looking forward to the day they could call me “Doctor Who”(they thought that was a better title than my real one). I've also realized that students like stories – stories of my fear of the bat in my apartment, my love of buffaloes, and my scuba diving. When I first started teaching and a student bumped into me at the grocery store, they were shocked, not realizing that I lived a normal life like them. Now, I bump into students at the Roller Derby, Manna Cafe or the grocery store and we can strike up a conversation about their out of school activities without a blink.

But it isn't all one-sided. By sharing my stories with them, they also tell me about their successes and achievements outside of school. This mutual sharing continues to build trust and respect. And, when they are having a bad or off day, they are more willing to share why and I give them the space and time needed to deal with it.

Just as we should remember the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have done unto you, we should also remember Callahan's Law "Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased — thus do we refute entropy." (Spider Robinson, Callahan and Company)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Less than an Elevator

Starting the first week of graduate school, most students are asked, "What is your research?"  Heading off to a conference to present a paper, students are advised to create an elevator speech about the paper, a 30-60 second summary of the paper that could be delivered in the elevator when you happen to bump into the one person you really want to read  your paper (like the person who you based your methodology on).  But, now Inside Higher Education proposes an even more practical, yet difficult feat - a Snapshot Dissertation - a 30-60 second video that summarizes a student's dissertation in language their parents or grandparents could understand.  I think this is a great idea!  As the article says, higher ed needs to help the general public understand why it is important to study Shakespeare, Moliere, blue footed boobies or a classroom.  For the full article, see the link below:

Snapshot Dissertation -

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Why study history?

Right now my middle school students are studying the Enlightenment. This was a powerful time in Western culture, as the Enlightenment thinkers emphasized reason over dogmatic faith and superstition, and scientists were refining exact methods of observation and experimentation. However, for many students, studying the Enlightenment entails the memorization of a bunch of people – Newton, Hobbes, Smith, Descartes, Voltaire, Franklin and Jefferson – and a bunch of dates. But, the spirit of the Enlightenment was exploration, discovery and independence. I'm hoping our current project will help the students recognize the powerful influence of the various ideas from the Enlightenment on our modern sensibilities.

The students will be creating a 3-dimensional model of a monument for an Enlightenment figure or event. Within the model, the students need to focus on the ideas and impact of the person, not just the events of his/her life or list the work done. Students have completed research on their individuals, completed a planning guide for the monument which asked them to think about the message behind their monument and how the design would support that message. Today they began drafting some paragraphs to describe the person's life and work and the impact the person's work has on modern life. Here is the outline I provided:
  1. Importance - explain why you feel this person and ideas should be remembered
    • Write a strong topic sentence
      • Topic (person & work) + a claim (opinion about why he/she and work is important) = strong topic sentence
    • Include some basic facts about the person's life and work
      • Use the information you researched
  1. Purpose - explain the message this monument is communicating and how the design will support that message
    • What is the lesson or moral of the person's life that will be illustrated in the monument?
    • Write a strong topic sentence
      • State the lesson/moral + how he/she exhibits this lesson/moral.
    • Include some examples from the person's life and work that support this lesson/moral
  1. Content - explain the information/ideas you intend your audience to think about when they visit your monument and how the design will present these ideas
    • Write a strong topic sentence
      • This monument will show …....
    • Describe the monument
      • What will it look like? How big? What materials? The setting?
      • What information/content/pictures will be on the monument?
        • Be specific – list the quotes, pictures, etc
      • How will people use and view the monument? Walk through it? Walk around it? Sit and contemplate it?
  1. Feelings - explain the feelings you want to evoke in people when they visit your monument and how the design will evoke those feelings
    • Write a strong topic sentence
      • When people leave this monument they should feel _________ because ________
    • How will the design, material and use of the monument help evoke (create) these feelings?
As I conferred with students throughout the class, one of the major ideas they struggled with was making the initial claim. Why is this person's work still important? The other idea they struggled with was the purpose of the monument. I have been encouraging them to think beyond just showing the person's work or discovery, but to look at what lesson or moral can we learn from the person's life.

Some major lessons that students are learning from the Enlightenment thinkers include:
  • Catherine the Great – Education is key.
  • Joseph II of Habsburg – Equality for all.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft - Writing can change the world.
  • Thomas Jefferson – Change can happen without violence and through the written word.
  • Ben Franklin – Never give up.
  • Mozart – Even prodigies needed to practice to get better.
  • Isaac Newton – Censorship stifles ideas.
This, I believe, is the purpose of studying history. Not just to know what happened and when, but to learn a lesson from it and be able to apply it to our own lives. I hope my students begin to see this through our classes together.