Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Top Blog Entries of 2009

Year-end summaries are checkpoints for teachers. While it may be the end of the calendar year, we’re at the midpoint of the school year. It’s the perfect moment to reflect on where we’ve been and adjust for the second half of the academic year.

Of the 49 entries published this year, these were the most popular with readers:

  1. Five Ways to Learn about Students This Fall (August 18)
  2. Three Simple Things You Can Do to Improve Writing (February 24)
  3. Building Community in 15 Minutes a Day (August 4)
  4. What's the Best Plagiarism Detector? (November 3)
  5. Five Things I've Gained from Reading Literature (April 28)
  6. Writing Poetry: Putting Chaos into Perspective (March 24)
  7. What’s on Your Summer Writing List? (May 19)
  8. 21 Great Library Links (with Related Classroom Activities!) (September 1)
  9. Wordle and the Inauguration (January 27)
  10. Daring to Disturb the Universe (April 7)

So what can we take away from 2009? What will matter as we go forward? What do these entries tell us? The top blog entries of 2009 show that we are interested in connecting with students, building lively literacy communities, and finding the best strategies to support readers and writers.

There may have been some chaos. There have certainly been challenges. But we teachers are always willing to look for something better, a new way, or a more effective solution. Most importantly, we dare to disturb the universe. We push students into those dissonant places where learning happens—and we provide them the support and encouragement they need to grow as readers and writers. Here’s to an even more daring 2010!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Look Back at 2009: Meeting Professional Learning Goals

‘Tis the season for year-end best-of retrospectives, and though I’m not a film critic or Amazon editor, I’ve got a list of my own to share. I’m fortunate that this year has brought me enough positive professional development experiences that I’m able to recommend three of them in this, my last INBOX blog of 2009.

Certainly each of these recommended NCTE resources is of exceptional quality in its own right, and I’m confident you’ll find something of value in them. But what makes these three my top NCTE resources for the year is the way in which they met specific professional development needs and goals I’d set for myself: assisting my district’s efforts to reform English curriculum, learning about Young Adult literature to share with my struggling readers, and promoting a building-wide culture of literacy and learning.

In order corresponding to those goals, then, here are three 2009 NCTE resources worth checking out:

Bruce Penniman’s book Building the English Classroom: Foundations, Support, Success
Yes, I blogged about this one last month, but I still contend it’s the best professional book I read in 2009. At once both comprehensive in scope and specific in examples and explanations, Penniman’s discussion of designing a writing program, designing a literature curriculum, and creating an assessment system reinforced what I believed I was doing well, challenged some practices I may want to change, and gave me new insights to approaches I hadn’t even considered. Valuable for new and veteran English teachers alike, this book is one that secondary methods teachers should consider adopting as well.

Jennifer Buehler’s podcast “A Conversation with Matt de la Peña
Jennifer recommended de la Peña’s second book, Mexican WhiteBoy, in her ReadWriteThink.org Text Messages podcast back in 2008, but it wasn’t until I listened to this October 2009 conversation with the author that I took her for her word and read one of his novels, Ball Don’t Lie. In this episode, she and Matt talk about his writing process and the characters from his newest book, We Were Here, which is on my reading list for winter break—if I can get my copy back from the student who’s already reading it first.

Doug Fisher (and team)’s web seminar “On Teaching Content: Building a Schoolwide Culture
I’ve mentioned this resource before, too, but like Penniman’s book, it merits a second recommendation. You can access the archived version of this hour-long learning experience to see teachers across subject areas discuss the ways in which instructional routines develop students understanding about content. You’ll also see and hear from students in these teachers’ classrooms who can attest to the benefits of these approaches to building vocabulary and background knowledge and promoting learning through writing.

With your learning goals for 2010 in mind, I encourage you to check out the resources I’ve recommended and peruse the NCTE and ReadWriteThink.org websites for other professional learning materials that can help you help students succeed!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

How to Move Closer to School 2.0

William Kist’s “From Web 2.0 to School 2.0: Tales from the Field” includes vignettes of teachers across the United States using digital technologies to connect students to one another and to the texts that they explore.

The remarkable thing about the activities Kist describes is not the technology the teachers use. The social networking tools he discusses are widely available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. Sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Wikipedia are part of everyday conversations. They’re mentioned on television and radio regularly, seen in newspaper ads and on billboards, and even plastered on the sides of products you pick up in department and grocery stores.

It’s not availability that makes these social networks a significant tool in the classroom. Simply adding digital technologies doesn't guarantee an empowering, student-centered pedagogy. Read the recent Edutopia article “Skip the Sub and Teach with Twitter” to see what I mean. The teacher in the article functions as the traditional sage-on-stage. She’s just controlling the class from a distance, even down to the point of telling a student to stop talking. Twitter could easily be replaced with a telephone and the same teaching would have resulted.

To move closer to School 2.0, teachers and students need to rethink the classroom. I recently watched the GRITtv interview Clay Shirky: The Social Media Revolution, which colleague Chris Boese blogged about. GRITtv Interviewer Laura Flanders captures the challenge of building School 2.0 when she asks Shirky, “How do we help new tools really be voices for new ideas and new populations and new ways of looking at things and not the same old power struggles?”

That’s the question we need to ask in the classroom: How can we use social networking tools, or Web 2.0, to bring out new voices and ideas, rather than repeat the same old power struggles and pedagogy? What steps can we take to bring the social media revolution to the classroom (and not simply digitize the sage-on-stage tradition)?

There are three important things we can do in response that will help us rethink the classroom and move closer to School 2.0.

1. Ask Students for Suggestions

When we look at the classroom, we often see only what’s obvious. We need to see the wider range of possibilities. The solution is simple. Just ask students to list the social networking tools and technology they have access to and then ask them what they could do with these tools in the classroom.

We need to ask students to help us see the classroom in new ways, ways we have never thought of. This kind of rethinking and re-envisioning is the crux of the social media revolution. To show you what I mean, let me borrow a quotation from Boese’s blog, related to how Twitter works:

The simplicity of Twitter, of course, is its genius. It has the power to do so much by doing so little. But that’s not the only thing that’s simple about Twitter. The service itself was only intended to share 140-character messages with the world. Its significance is its evolution. Everything from @replying and retweeting to using hashes and symbols can be attributed to the users. It has brilliantly allowed users to define it – almost entirely. As Shirky points out, “Most of the uses of Twitter were not imagined by the designers of the service – they were managed by the users of the service.”

When we ask students how they would use social networking tools in the classroom, we encourage them to take the step that Twitter users took. We ask them to imagine ways of communicating that we haven't thought of—and we encourage them to take the steps necessarily to make that communication happen.

2. Look for Roadmaps

New directions require new roadmaps. Don’t panic when you find you don’t know how to do all the things students want to try in the classroom. Look to the work of other teachers already on the way to School 2.0.

Kist links to a number of tools you can use in his article. You may pursue your own dedicated Ning or contribute to an existing resource like Wikipedia. Either way, consider Kist’s descriptions of how these tools have been used can serve as potential models for the classes you teach.

Additionally, check out resources on the ReadWriteThink site:

Finally, look for support among other teachers. Join the NCTE Ning and ask your questions (or share your fears). Chances are someone will be able to help you!

3. Encourage and Support Trial and Error

There’s no one right way to do things when you’re working with social networks. What works for one person (or class), may not work at all for another. You will only find the best fit if you are willing to try, retry, rearrange, modify, and customize the ways that you use Web 2.0 tools in the classroom.

Look back to that quotation from Boese’s blog. What has made Twitter an active social networking tool isn’t its original design, but Twitter’s evolution in the hands of its users. Twitter users try out new tools and new ways of encoding their messages all the time. The techniques that work best stick. Ways that don’t work are dropped. When something better comes along, people switch and begin using it instead.

It’s the same for those of us moving toward School 2.0. We’ll only find the best ways to use social networking in the classroom if we are willing to evolve. We have to help students develop, test, and rethink their use of digital technologies, and we have to remind them constantly that there is no one right way to use social networks. School 2.0 is one place where it has to be okay to fail. Indeed, it’s a place where failure is actually a sign of progress.

Rethink. Evolve. School 2.0.

Kist tells us that ”In this new media age, it seems we are all not only constantly recipients of messages but creators of them as well.” That simple truth is also secret of School 2.0. Once we invite students to help us rethink and evolve the ways we communicate in the classroom, we can move closer to School 2.0. And when that happens, students are no longer simply “recipients” of educational messages and literacy instruction. They are, in fact, “creators” of education and literacy as well. That shift is ultimately what moves us all closer to School 2.0.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

It Pays to Attend NCTE's Annual Convention

On the elevator ride to Kylene Beers’s presidential address on my last day of Convention in Philadelphia, I was joined by someone whose apparel told me he was in town for the other big event of the weekend—the Philadelphia Marathon. Noticing my tell-tale signs of convention attendee, he confirmed that I was one of those English teachers here for the meeting. “There are so many of you here! Is this a national thing?” he inquired. I told him a bit about NCTE, and as he started to exit on his floor, he said to me, “I can’t believe all of you are giving up your weekend for this. I hope your schools are paying you well for the extra time!” The doors closed before I could tell him that not only were none of us being paid to be there, but many of us were in fact paying part or all of our way to attend. This runner’s fundamental misunderstanding of what convention is all about prompted me to reflect on some of my most valuable moments of the experience:

  • Hearing author Junot Diaz’s talk at the Opening Session A good friend and colleague introduced me to Diaz’s collection Drown after I admitted that I didn’t really like short stories that much. I became an instant fan of his fiction and enjoyed his recent novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as well. What a pleasure it was to hear him reaffirm the notion of reading as a fundamentally compassionate act in the midst of a culture that prizes hierarchy and competition. It was also encouraging to hear him share the importance of framing learning as a process of discovery, not merely approval. (My blandly sanitized recap doesn’t really do the talk justice, believe me).
  • Seeing a teacher demonstrate a reading workshop conference with high school students I’ve been inching toward the workshop model with my struggling readers, but with so few secondary examples out there—in print or otherwise—I’ve been too timid to make the leap. Having the chance to see a very skilled teacher demonstrate her response process with four students from her class (with a page from Diaz’s Oscar Wao, no less) was just the confidence-building model I needed.
  • Learning with teachers at Bruce Penniman’s session I finished Building the English Classroom: Foundations, Support, Success on the way to Philadelphia, so I was pleased to see that the author, Bruce Penniman, was presenting on one of the topics he writes about so well in that book: differentiation within a heterogeneous classroom. In the session, Bruce came across just as he does in the book—wise but down-to-earth, experienced but still energized and enthusiastic about the very difficult work of teaching English.
  • Meeting a “stranger” on the train In a bizarre stroke of luck, seated next to me on a train ride was another convention attendee, a former librarian who had just spoken at the Secondary Section Get-together. After a few minutes of small talk, she shared with me that she was Nancy Pearl, author of the Book Lust series! I’ve certainly never had a more richly rewarding conversation with a new acquaintance, as we spent the ride swapping dozens of book recommendations. In fact, you might look for a few of mine in her forthcoming book on works about or set in specific memorable locales.
As I look back on this list—and all my memories of the convention—I’m struck at the mix. Some of the highlights were precisely what drew me there in the first place; others were completely serendipitous moments. But they all share the common threads of connection, conversation, and collaboration—the kind you can only get at a big “meeting of the minds” such as annual convention. Never mind that some of my bills for this one might not even be paid yet…I’m looking forward to Orlando in 2010. Until then, be sure to share some of your highlights from Philadelphia here or in the Annual Convention Ning.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Secret to Teaching Literature

In her Welcome to the 2009 NCTE Annual Convention, Carol Jago explains that the convention theme “‘Once and Future Classics: Reading Between the Lines,’ is designed to inspire courageous conversations about traditional and contemporary literature and foster lively discussions of how we teach as well as what we teach.”

Literature gives us so much to talk about, but eventually, we end up discussing how to teach the subject in ways that engage students while challenging them to think critically about what they read. The secret isn’t knowing how to identify every image or literary element. It’s not about finding some absolute set of classic texts. It’s not memorizing facts about the authors. It’s not telling students what makes a work great or even that a work is great.

For me, the secret is in my own attitude and reaction to the texts. If my choices and reactions show an enthusiastic and broad appreciation for literature, students are more likely to engage in deeper conversations about the texts.

The solution isn’t simply to gush over what we read. It’s far more complicated and nuanced. It has to do with how I think about literature itself and how my choices foster an open, supportive literacy community. Here are my secrets:

  1. Remember that any text can be a classic. There’s no useful reason to limit the definition of literature to certain genres, canonical texts, or popular choices. Literature can be anything from a graphic novel to a haiku, from the latest Gossip Girls novel to medieval madrigals. It doesn’t have to be a particular format. It doesn’t have to be in English. It can be fiction or nonfiction. Any text can be a “once and future classic” in the classroom. When all texts are welcome, the options multiply exponentially and readers are more likely to find a text they can engage with and enjoy.
  2. Recognize that the word text is not limited to print artifacts. As bookstores eagerly push ereaders like Kindle and Nook, we cannot deny that the age of paper-only literature is no more. Literature includes many media, from print to digital, and from films to video games. Classroom discussion can make connections to these many kinds of artifacts. We don’t even have to have computers and projectors in the classroom. Literary elements like plot and setting stretch from one medium to another. 21st century definitions of literacy respect these connections, and I prefer to welcome the full range of literature to the classroom.
  3. Find and build connections to and among texts. Simply reading one word after another or viewing one image after another is never enough. Literature isn’t important because of what it is. It’s important because of our reactions and interactions with it. Welcoming connections openly and supportively can make all the difference in teaching literature effectively. Students may identify with a feeling or experience. They may reject a presentation of reality or a decision a character makes. They may find that events in wildly different texts have more in common than they expected. These connections are what makes literature engaging and alive.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Acknowledging the Role of Professional Development in Literacy Education Reform

I teach a reading course for 9th grade students who have been identified as needing additional support as they transition to the literacy demands of high school. Last week, students were learning about photosynthesis by participating in variety of reading activities involving picture books, websites, and excerpts from textbooks and trade nonfiction. At one point during the period, a student asked, “Why are we doing this in here? If this is a reading class, shouldn’t we be reading novels and writing summaries?”

Well, we do read novels and we do build comprehension skills such as summarizing in that class. But the student’s question couldn’t be more relevant in light of the recent introduction of the LEARN (Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation) Act to the US Senate. Too many adolescent learners think of English as the class in which they read. Too many teachers and administrators think of English as the class in which reading is taught. Logically, then, novels are taught, read, and written about; content area texts are “taught around.”

I am hopeful that the proposed LEARN Act lives up to its acronymic promise by helping us all better understand that, even for (especially for!) adolescents, school has to be about both learning to read and write and learning through reading and writing. This isn’t to say that every teacher has to become a literacy specialist, but it does suggest that everyone involved in the education of America’s students needs to be aware of the powerful ways that reading and writing can be used to learn content, with improved proficiency in reading and writing achieved in the process.

This shift in understanding doesn’t come easily, though. That’s why it’s so exciting to see that one of the three prongs of the proposed LEARN Act specifically mentions funding for professional development for teachers. Teachers are used to mandates that, even if philosophically agreeable, are doomed to fail because they focus only on the what of educational reform. The how of school reform involves time and money, so we’re often on our own to develop solutions.

I know I’ve profited immensely from engaging in ongoing, job-embedded professional development such as NCTE’s Pathways for Advancing Adolescent Literacy and web seminars like On Teaching Content: Building a Schoolwide Culture, all of which support the goals of LEARN. So even though this legislation is still in its very early stages of the process, I still have to be encouraged by a proposal that includes teachers as part of the “All” in LEARN and acknowledges us as active learners in the reform process.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What’s the Best Plagiarism Detector?

My favorite plagiarism story from the last month is the Time article “How Plagiarism Software Found a New Shakespeare Play.” The story explains how plagiarism-detection software was used to look for similarities between known Shakespearean plays and a work suspected to by the Bard. They found enough similarities to convince the author of the study that we should add The Reign of Edward III to the Shakespearean canon.

The Shakespearean study used the free software Pl@giarism, one of many checkers you can find online. Nick Carbone, Director of New Media for Bedford/St. Martin’s, recently posted a list of plagiarism detectors to several discussion lists. Nick, who has done a number of workshops on avoiding plagiarism, found the following programs, which he’s allowed me to share with you :

I‘m tempted to run The Reign of Edward III through some of these other tools to see if they concur with the original study, but that’s really the only way I’d use them.

Russ Hunt, from St. Thomas University in New Brunswick, Canada, explains the basic challenge I see in such plagiarism detectors in a comment on a 2007 blog entry I wrote about plagiarism:

[W]e need to get rid of the “turn in” part of “turnitin.” What happens to student writing should be that it gets read, and matters: what happens in fact, way too much of the time, is that it gets “turned in.” I always think of the image of sod.

As long as student writing serves the sole purpose of being a medium by which students are evaluated (it's “turned in” so we can do that), students aren’t going to see it as real. We can “encourage” students to “choose topics that matter to them” all we want, but they have to matter to a reader too. And you don't “turn things in” to a reader. You turn them in to “the teacher as examiner.”

In other words, all the plagiarism detectors listed above focus on some finished product that students have “turned in.” They care only about a final copy and read the texts like a spell checker, with little passion for what the author has tried to say. As Hunt suggests, students’ work is not read, so much as examined. So if none of those tools do what we need, what is the best option?

The best plagiarism detector

  • looks at students’ work in progress. It doesn’t wait till the end to scream, “GOTCHA!” It looks at writing throughout the composing process and shows writers that a reader is genuinely interested in their take on the topics.
  • makes sure that writers are never working frantically, at the last minute. It guards against situations where students plagiarize in the anxiety of last-minute writing. It values not just that final draft that gets “turned in” but every draft—from jotted notes to sloppy copy to published submissions.
  • gives writers information about using sources in the context of the composing process. It teaches the difference between summary and quotation and how to check citations in the context of the work in progress. Ideally, when a writer begins working with outside sources, the best detection system would be able to step in and look at what the writer is doing and give feedback to help resolve any issues before the final draft is “turned in.”

In short, the best plagiarism detector pays attention to what writers are doing early on and throughout the composing process and fosters an authentic exchange between readers and writers.

And that’s why you are actually the best plagiarism detector. A writing teacher who engages students as an authentic reader and works with them throughout the process can detect more plagiarism than any software algorithm ever will. And more importantly, a writer teacher can not only detect plagiarism but also can talk to writers about how to fix any issues before that final draft is “turned in.”

Monday, October 19, 2009

4 Ways to Inspire a Love of Writing

Tuesday, October 20, 2009 is the first National Day on Writing and the unveiling of the current submissions in the National Gallery of Writing. It’s the day that NCTE asks us “to draw attention to the remarkable variety of writing we engage in, and to help writers from all walks of life recognize how important writing is to their lives.”

The celebration of writing across the United States this week will draw the attention of students, teachers, and the rest of the world, but how do we sustain this focus on writing? Here are some simple things that you can do to foster a love of writing in children, teens, and adults:

  1. Focus on personal connections.
    Writers need readers. They need someone to connect to what they write. A nod of agreement. A smile. A tear. The slightest gesture can go a long way in telling a writer you understand what she is saying. Once writers begin connecting with people, they realize the true power of writing.

    When you read someone else’s text, connect on a personal level. Make comments that relate your reactions as a reader directly to the writer’s work. You can use sentences like "Your description here reminded me of [some experience you’ve had or something you have seen]” or “I understand how you felt in this section because I had the same thing happen to me.” Don’t be afraid to share your own stories in order to build these connections. The heady buzz that comes when writers connect with readers is what hooks people on writing.
  2. Help writers see choices.
    Writers like to make their own choices. The more control writers have, the more engaged they are in writing. Choice makes writers active participants in the writing that they do. Help writers see the choices they have by connecting writing to the issues and topics that they care about.

    Ask writers to tell you what interests them, what stirs their emotions, or what they can’t do without. For a book talk or movie review, ask what characters they liked or disliked, what parts they identified with, or whether they’d put the piece on their list of “must haves.” For a persuasive slide show or debate presentation, ask them how they feel about the topic or how it affects them personally. Use their responses to help them decide what to write about and to encourage them to get started. When writing is a choice, people become excited and interested in the process.
  3. Recognize all writing as important.
    Every day, people everywhere are writing massive amounts of text. There are to-do lists, short notes left on the refrigerator, email messages to friends, blog entries, status updates on Twitter and Facebook, and more. Too often, people think the only writing that counts is printed on clean sheets of paper. Counter this belief. Remind people that all writing matters.

    Say something when writers update frequently on Twitter, post blog entries, and send out links to their latest web pages. Recognizing writing is as simple as commenting that you read it. Try saying something like “Wow, you were busy. You wrote a lot today” or “That email message you wrote really got me thinking.” Or better yet, don’t say it—reply in writing!
  4. Call people writers.
    I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. The simplest and most effective thing you can do to encourage people to love writing is to call them writers. From the beginning, recognize children, teens, and adults as writers. Not "student writers," and certainly not just "students." They are writers, no matter how much they write or how polished their writing may be.

    You are a writer when you believe that you are—and once people believe they are writers, they are on the path to a life-long love of writing.

Make today and every day a day on writing. For more tips on encouraging people to write, check out these great resources:

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The National Day on Writing: A Community Effort

When I met with my principal this fall to discuss how our school might participate in the National Day on Writing, we knew right away that we wanted to convey a belief in the value of writing to communicate about things that are important to us. We decided to create a local gallery within the National Gallery that would celebrate our school community and invite participation from as broad a spectrum as possible—students, alumni, families, teachers and staff, and retirees.

We announced our gallery to teachers at a monthly staff meeting, which began with everyone making a list of all the writing they had done over the course of the day. This activity, designed to make us all aware of the Day’s goal of illustrating “how integral writing has become to daily life in the 21st century,” triggered a number of lively conversations. Most interesting, perhaps, was the teacher who noted that though we all may write more than we might have a generation ago—is the writing any better?

Shortly thereafter, our school librarian shared information about our gallery with our Parent Teacher Student Association, and our alumni association contacts got the word out to as many graduates as possible. As it happened, one of the weeks leading up to the Day on Writing was Homecoming Week, when school spirit is high and people are already paying attention to information coming from the school. I was both pleased and amused to have the chance to write announcement copy that suggested that contributing a piece of original writing could be an expression of school spirit!

Now, a week out from the National Day on Writing, we are excited about the prospect of our small but growing gallery “going live” with all of the other local and partner galleries on October 20. We’ll use the momentum from that day to continue to invite members of our school community to contribute throughout the year.

Share the story behind your gallery by posting a comment here. Be sure to include a link so we can all check back next week to see the writing that members of your writing community decided to share with the world. If you are not currently affiliated with a local gallery, take a moment to browse the existing galleries. Chances are, you will find a place to share your writing as part of this national event.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Is My Writing Good Enough?

I've tried to decide what to write about for hours now. I've looked at every possible news story. I've read through articles from the most recent Council Chronicle. I've checked out my favorite blogs. I've searched the notes in all my journals.

I hate this kind of writer's block. I have pages of ideas, but I can't come up with something that seems important enough for NCTE's National Gallery of Writing. Nothing really feels right. Nothing feels good enough.

I know people suffer from writer's block every day. It's just that I'm an English teacher. I'm not supposed to have this problem. I know all about the writing process. I know that writing is hard work. I've tried brainstorming, rewriting and deleting—but I can't get unstuck. My writing just doesn't seem good enough.

Some little part of me expects a wonderful topic to spring forth. There must be a perfect idea out there somewhere, and I’ve searched and brainstormed for hours to find it.

Just as I was ready to give up, I remembered Gardiner Davis’s “Use the period. And other writing lessons,” a recent column from Crosscut, a Seattle news site. Davis explains that our quest for perfection is really the result of technology, more than anything else.

Now don’t jump to conclusions. It’s not that computers cause these problems. Davis points to technologies from the earliest days of writing. In the days of cuneiform, when writing required careful carving on clay tablets, there were grave consequences for error. There was no chance for correction. Only the option to start over. Davis describes the ultimate effect:

So fear enters the process. And as the element of fear gets linked with writing we create writer's block. That’s when the obsession with correctness comes in.

Davis goes on to discuss how this obsession with correctness resulted in essays covered in red ink and students and adults who hate writing.

Admittedly, I do not hate writing. I do hate being stuck. But why am I stuck? Davis’s article concludes that purpose and audience are really the key to the best writing. He says some negative things about the essays we English teachers assign, but his final point is well-taken:

When your boss asks you to write a letter, memo, or report, your first question should be, “What is the purpose of this document?” The second, “What do we want to happen because we sent this message?” And the last should be, “How much do we know about the reader?”

Without first clearly answering those questions, putting ink on paper is a total waste of everyone’s time.

Isn’t it absurd when a writing teacher forgets these things? I’ve been so busy worrying about finding the perfect topic that I forgot the most basic things about writing:

  • Forget about correctness. You can revise later.
  • Focus on what readers want (or need) to hear or know.
  • Decide what readers should do or think after reading.
  • Just start writing.

So if you’re like me and still haven’t figured out what to post in the National Gallery of Writing, it’s time. Stop looking for the perfect document. Stop trying to decide the perfect topic to ask students to write about for their submissions.

Think about what you want people who visit a gallery to see—perhaps details on how technology has affected your life, resources that show how you teach students, or even how you work as a writer. Decide what you want people who visit the gallery to conclude about how writing happens today for you and the students you teach.

And above all, don't worry about perfection. Just start writing.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Parents, Political Staff, and Print Literacy

On her blog last week, Arapahoe High School English Teacher Michelle Davis asked the parents of her ninth graders to write about how learning to write effectively is important. And they did! Parents wrote about the necessity of accurate written communication in a medical facility where the patient’s care would be carried out only according to the written notes on the chart, about the importance of getting the right language down in oil and gas leases, about emailing as the important communication on the job, and more.

And while they wrote, Huck Gutman, chief of staff for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, wrote about poetry in The Chronicle of Higher Education. He wrote that as a former Professor of English, he misses teaching poetry, which means much to him, adding that teaching is in many ways a more fulfilling job than working in the Senate. He followed by describing how he’s taken to sending the poems of poets such as William Carlos Williams, Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, and Wordsworth to other people, from friends to colleagues, people in Washington, D.C., and former students and people he meets at yard sales. His conclusion: people, many who’ve never studied poetry, love to get the poems he sends and they love to enjoy them with him--they also enjoy the commentaries he sends along with the poems.

Then, Paul Barnwell wrote his commentary in Education Week , “Literacy Accountability in a New-Media Age.” He begins:

Walking through the hallways of the middle school where I teach, I inevitably hear students talk about music Web sites, blogs, Web-based photo albums, Facebook pages, and other forms of new media.

If we judged these students’ ability to interpret and gather information solely based on their mastery of print media, we’d be doing ourselves—and society—a huge disservice.

Michelle Davis, Huck Gutman, and Paul Barnwell agree on three important beliefs behind the National Gallery of Writing :

1. Effective writing is important—not just in school but long after that in the jobs we do in the world.

2. People enjoy reading others’ writings even when they're not assigned to do so and they learn from those writings.

3. Print is not the only form of composition, nor the only form of writing that we need to teach and test to show that our students have learned and can think critically.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What About Writing?

I love writing—I love to do it, to read it, to teach it. Unlike some, I’m not worried that my students’ brains have gone soft with too much texting and unrestrained Internet usage. I just figure that when we’re essay writing, we all need to learn to write to our audiences and when we’re texting, we write to that audience, and one of my jobs as a teacher is to help students learn how to recognize and write for particular audiences. In class, since our class is online, the students and I are writing all the time even in those instances when in a face-to-face class we’d be speaking.

The new Carnegie report A Time to Act calls for a “literacy revolution” in our schools. Yet when they were developed in 2004, NCTE’s Beliefs on the Teaching of Writing already predicted a change in the nature of and expectation for literacy and, along with that, a change in the nature of writing. The Beliefs went on to say, “Much of that change has been due to technological developments, from pen and paper, to typewriter, to word processor, to networked computer, to design software capable of composing words, images, and sounds. These developments not only expanded the types of texts that writers produce, they also expanded immediate access to a wider variety of readers.”

But there are some who take issue with the influence of technology in our schools. In “Cursive Writing May Be Fading Skill, but So What?” (Yahoo! News, September 21, 2009), some West Virginia parents have expressed dismay that instruction in cursive writing is taking a back seat to lessons on using technological tools to write.

Others couldn’t be happier. The students in “At-Risk Students Make Multimedia” (Edutopia Magazine, October 2009) and in “Stop the Presses! Revamped Journalism Courses Attract Hordes of Students"(The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 21, 2009) are more than happy to be using new forms of composition: blogging and broadcasting, video game-making and tweeting.

I agree with NCTE member Dennis Barron who points out in 'A Better Pencil' (Inside Higher Ed, September 18, 2009), an interview on his new book A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, it’s highly unlikely that new writing technologies are doing damage to the English language.

New 21st century forms of composition are behind NCTE’s idea to develop the The National Gallery of Writing—a place to collect and display the writings of our citizenry, writings of all sorts. With 17 national galleries and nearly 1,000 local galleries, the public will be able to view varied kinds and modes of writing submitted by people of all ages and occupations. When the gallery goes live on October 20, 2009, the National Day on Writing, and until the display ends in June 2010, writing researchers will have the opportunity to use the submissions to analyze writing today, to help get to the root of the debate on the present state of writing.

Currently NCTE hypothesizes that we’re in the midst of a writing revolution, that people are writing more than ever but that, perhaps, the youngest of us are doing most of that writing outside of school as Writing Between the Lines—and Everywhere Else indicates.

Being able to study across the samples of composition submitted to the gallery will help NCTE learn how to better help teachers of writing help student writers improve their craft. As part of the bargain the Council offers writing resources for all writers.

What do you think we’ll find out about writing today?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Five Starting Points for Your Gallery Entry

There's still time to have students submit their work to NCTE's National Gallery of Writing. The only problem is deciding what to write. The Gallery has room for any kind of writing, from formal essays to family email messages, and from workplace memos to IMs among friends. Anything goes!

If you're finding it hard to decide what to have students focus on, here are five starting places. The responses students write can be rather informal, like something they might post on a personal blog, or they can be more formal pieces that students might publish in a school newspaper. Encourage students to focus on personal stories, advice, or experiences and to focus on an audience of their peers, other students across the U.S.

So share one or more of these starting points with students and get them writing! And be sure to submit students' work by visiting the National Gallery site!

X Things You Should Know About Y
Just choose a number and a topic. Aim for something like 3 to 5. You can always increase the number if you have more ideas. You might focus on something like "3 Things You Should Know About Student Teaching," "5 Things You Should Know about AP English," or "3 Things You Should Know About Getting Your Driver's License." Once you have your rough title, all you have to do is write out the items. You can brainstorm a list, and choose the best ideas to expand into full sentences or paragraphs.
Why X Doesn't Matter
You've been told that dozens of things are crucial for one reason or another, but when it comes down to it, they may not matter at all. Choose one and tell the story that explains why you no longer think it matters. You might write about "Why Spelling Doesn't Matter on Facebook" or "Why Making the Track Team Doesn't Matter." Whatever you choose, remember to focus on the personal experiences that led you to draw the conclusion. Be specific and talk about how you came to your realization.
What You Should Know About X
What are you an authority on? What advice can you give to someone else? You could write "What You Should Know About Student Teaching," "What You Should Know About Reading a Novel," or even "What You Should Know to Pass Mrs. Grimes' English Class." You can make the topic more specific by clarifying the "You." For instance, you might choose "What Girls Should Know About Their First Date." Once you have your topic, brainstorm the things that your reader needs to know, and then fill out your writing by adding personal details and explanations that demonstrate why it's important to know the information.
The Ultimate Guide to X, or How to X
For this starting poing, think of something you can describe in steps. Focus on something relatively simple that you can explain in 4 to 7 steps. For example, you could write "The Ultimate Guide to Packing a Healthy Lunch," "How to Study for Your History Quiz," or "The Ultimate Guide to Building a Snow Fort." Sketch out your steps as a jot list, and then expand them into full sentences and paragraphs. Be sure to tell readers both what to do and why they should do it.
Why I [Love/Hate/Am Scared of/Like] X
You have two choices to make for this starting point. Choose the verb you want to use from the options listed or add one of your own, and choose the topic you want to talk about. Be sure to focus on something very specific. For example, focus on "Why I Love the First Day of School" rather than "Why I Love School." You might talk about "Why I Hate Spelling Bees," "Why I Am Scared of Hornets," or "Why I Like Windows 7." Once you have your topic, you can either jot down 2 or 3 reasons and then expand upon them, OR you can tell a personal story that will demonstrate why you feel the way that you do.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Reflection on September 11th and the Power of Writing

Those of us who were in schools and classrooms eight years ago this week can likely recall with specificity how difficult it was to help our students process the news of the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., as we ourselves were learning about the human loss and devastation only moments before—or at the same time as—our students did.

It was with these still vivid memories in mind that I heeded Jennifer Buehler’s recommendation and read David Levithan’s just-published young adult novel Love is the Higher Law this weekend. Levithan’s book chronicles the experiences of three New York City teens on September 11, 2001, as they attempt to situate their personal emotions in the midst of a national tragedy and to reconcile their doubts about humanity with their need to feel hope for the future.

Reading Levithan’s book (and earlier this year, Joseph O’Neill’s beautifully rendered Netherland, a novel that explores the ways the events of 9/11 profoundly alter the narrator’s personal life) reminded me of twin truths upon which the tradition of Sophocles and Shakespeare is founded: Writing helps give meaning to tragedies that seem too immense to comprehend, and reading what good writers have written about these tragedies connects us in an experience of art borne out of destruction.

To be sure, the notion of reading and writing about tragedy seems starkly different when the tragedy is real and not mythical, in the present day and not historical. As with literature about any significant event, there is certainly a risk of the creation of “a 9/11 genre” filled with books that merely use the day as an excuse for a topical and timely story. I’m grateful for authors such as Levithan and O’Neill (and I’m sure there are others) who are writing about September 11 despite that risk, and to powerful effect.

Early in Love is the Higher Law, the character Claire (a high school senior) rushes from her school to the classroom in which her younger brother Sammy and other children are coloring flowers and pumpkins, unaware of the destruction occurring only a few blocks south. “The world is falling apart,” Claire observes dismissively, “and this is what we have to offer.”

Far from being art that is merely a distraction, writing that engages both directly and indirectly with an event such as 9/11 has much to offer all of us: Perspectives different from our own; narratives that allow for confusion and fear as well as hope; and reading experiences that prompt us to reevaluate the potential for human response to complex and profound events.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

21 Great Library Links (with Related Classroom Activities!)

Online library sites offer teachers wonderful resources—and you don't need to schedule a trip to the library to use them! From storytelling to writing and literature, you can find materials that will get students engaged and clicking at these sites:

Look for the stories behind the photos
Share photographs from these sites and challenge students to search the images for clues about the lives, dreams, and treasures of the people pictured. Use the photos as a springboard for narrative stories that go beyond the image to what's come before or what will come next, or ask students to embark on research projects that explore the historical moments that the photos capture. If your resources allow, students can embark on their own documentary photography projects. Using these photos as models, have students take photos (or even record videos) of the people around them and document the stories behind the photos they take.

  1. "The Pageant of America" Photograph Archive (New York Public Library)
  2. Ellis Island Photographs (New York Public Library)
  3. Photographs of America from the Great Depression to World War II (Library of Congress)
  4. Ansel Adams’s Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar (Library of Congress)
  5. Picture This: Family Photographs of Everyday San Francisco (San Francisco Public Library)

Record your own history
Remind students that everyone's story matters with these personal narratives and oral histories. You'll find transcripts and audio recordings that tell the story of people who see and do remarkable things as part of their daily lives. Use the materials on the StoryCorps website to ask students to record histories of their own after exploring resources from these collections.

  1. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 (Library of Congress)
  2. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1940 (Library of Congress)
  3. Eyewitness (National Archive)
  4. From the Home Front and the Front Lines: A Special Presentation of Original Materials and Oral Histories From the Veteran's History Project (Library of Congress)

Look at the creative process
Writing can be a downright messy process. Show students that even great writers scribble and revise in complicated ways by sharing a notebook or original draft from one of these collections. Ask students to look not for the perfect sections of text, but for the places where the thinking and rethinking shows on the page. Rather than simply comparing these first drafts to the authors's later polished versions, have students compare the creative process behind these writers's drafts to their own efforts as writers and thinkers.

  1. Walt Whitman Manuscripts (New York Public Library)
  2. Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass (Library of Congress)
  3. The Notebook of William Blake (British Library)
  4. Emily Dickinson manuscript material (Boston Public Library)
  5. Langston Hughes Papers (Yale University)

Explore literary manuscripts
You probably don't have access to literary manuscripts in your school library. No matter. You can find examples online. Take any manuscript for a work that you're studying and ask students to consider how the original text compares to the mass-produced copies in your classroom or school/public library.

  1. Beowulf (British Library)
  2. Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Huntington Library)
  3. Shakespearean Book Folios Online (University of Victoria)
  4. John Milton's Paradise Lost (The Morgan Library)
  5. Jane Austen's The History of England (British Library)
  6. Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures Under Ground (British Library)
  7. Jean de Brunhoff's Histoire de Babar Maquette (The Morgan Library)


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Writing Everywhere

On July 14, Scott Filkins blogged about his literacy dig, noting the many writing activities he’d accomplished in just one day. But here’s something I’ve been noticing ever since the National Day on Writing bug bit me. Have you ever noticed how many, many people are writing and just how much writing there is in the world? Well, I’ve been unable to help myself from noticing.

Example 1 - Writing for corn and soy beans. A friend of mine owns a farm here in Central Illinois. If you know anything about this part of the Midwest, you’ll guess (accurately) that the farm produces corn some years and soybeans the next. Now although each of these crops when alternated put back in the soil what the other takes out, our rich soil still needs fertilizer. “Where is she going with all this?” you’re probably asking by now, but here’s the point. In times gone by a farmer would just get the some fertilizer and sprinkle it equally all around the farm. But today, this farmer pays to have a satellite fly over his fields—and here’s where the writing comes in—and from that fly-by he gets in text and in pictures information that tells him exactly which fields need how much fertilizer—no more guess work, no over-fertilization run-off.

Example 2 – Writing for cats and dogs. I have pets and I travel lots. I need a pet-sitter who will come to my home and take care of my pets while I’m gone, but more than that, someone who will cuddle and nurse my pets when they need it. In the past several years, I’ve found my pet sitters and information about my pet sitters on their websites where I can read testimonials, notice how they talk about the pets they care for, and check out their prices.

Example 3 – Writing for advertising. In Urbana, Illinois, there’s a billboard on the way into town from the north that displays the most interesting ads, each featuring some short, catchy, and often puzzling tag line. The trick for me each time I pass by the billboard is to see if I can get the entire tag line read at 30 miles an hour and then if I can figure out the message. I’m guessing that’s exactly what the billboard ad creator wants because by the time I put all the texts together, I don’t readily forget the product or service being advertised.

Example 4 – Writing for car repair. My car dealership just got a new makeover, complete with a snazzy waiting room with cookies and coffee, and a car wash complimentary with my oil change. Where the writing comes in—beyond the fix-it ticket they’ve been using for years—is in the car checklist that appears on my bill when I turn up every 3000 miles. The checklist not only tells me which of many services my car should have at what mileage intervals but the service staff usually circle those services that I might be interested in very soon. I actually try to keep the checklist in my glove box so I can remember the next time where I’ve left off on the service program—something I guess they’re counting on.

Example 5 – Texting for kids. Who would have guessed even five years ago that I’d be using my cell phone to make dates with my grown daughter or to firm up the time to pick up my choral singing colleague? In fact, five years ago when I first went to Europe, my daughter was horrified that I wasn’t bringing my cell phone. “Wouldn’t work there anyhow,” I told her, and that was true enough then, but just past weekend I was listening to Rick Steves’ radio travel show and my ears perked up when he talked about buying SIM cards through vending machines in Europe so you could use your cell phone, for example, to text your children to see where they were so you all could plan when and where to meet up. Sure beats the old-fashioned way.

Writing is a significant part of our lives—not just English-teacher lives but the lives of repair people, babysitters, kindergarten artists, pet-sitters, lawyers, bloggers, farmers, hospitality workers, truckers, travelers, advertisers, nurses, trades workers, and more.

Two NCTE Reports-- Writing in the 21st Century and Writing for School vs. Writing for Life speak both to the significance of writing today and to how different it is from writing in times gone by. It’s plain that now we have technological tools that enable us to write differently now in form and frequency, but now with those tools even when using pen and paper, we think about writing differently. We are able to write lots, often targeting our own audiences and trying to make things happen--we have agency for what we write, especially when we’ve been the ones to decide to write. And, many of our students are writing just this way outside of school, ironically thinking that what they’re doing isn’t writing, and many are not doing enough of this new sort of writing in school.

How can we help our students expand their notions of what constitutes writing so we can help them use their own agency and audience selection to make things happen with their writing? What if we began by sending our students on a scavenger hunt for new ways of writing? What would they find?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Five Ways to Learn about Students This Fall

The beginning of a new school term means new students. Sometimes we'll see faces we know from the previous year, but often we see a fresh slate. Fresh, but not blank. They bring with them literacy experiences from other classrooms, from their homes, and from their communities.

The challenge is to figure out what they know and connect to that prior knowledge and experience as soon as possible. Sure we could read through permanent files, ask for writing samples, and give them entrance tests.

The problem is all those strategies still require us to analyze the data and try to find (or more likely, guess) the most important influences and experiences. Why not choose a more straightforward method? Ask them. Here are five strategies you can try:

  • Write about Writing with Analogies Ask students to reflect on their writing habits and process. Using the resources in this ReadWriteThink.org lesson, you learn much about how students write and about how their attitudes toward writing. Are they confident? Do they have a lot of anxieties about writing? Do they write a lot or very little? This activity will reveal all! Modify the lesson a bit, and you can ask students to tell you about themselves as readers.
  • Compose Technology Autobiographies Today's students have always had computers somewhere in their community. They may think they spent no time writing during the summer months—until you ask them if they posted blog entries and status updates on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. Ask students to tell you about their regular or most significant interactions with technology with this ReadWriteThink.org lesson. Their stories will reveal their 21st century literacy skills.
  • Keep Writer’s Logs Use the reflective questions in this ReadWriteThink.org lesson to ask students to tell you about their literacy experiences and attitudes. Begin by asking students to respond to a key question or two about their literacy experiences in the past. Try a question like "How is your reading and writing during the summer different from during the school year?" or "What has been your favorite writing (or reading) experience and why?" The lesson provides for ongoing reflection on the writing students do, a process that will keep you informed about the writers you teach.
  • Make Reading Plans You can learn much about students' prior knowledge by asking them to tell you about what they want to do in the future. This ReadWriteThink.org lesson asks students to analyze the reading they've done in the past and make a plan for the future. As you read and respond to their work, you not only learn about their likes and dislikes as readers, but you also help them shape individual reading plans for the weeks to come.
  • Build a Literacy Gallery NCTE invites all writers to submit one piece of writing that is important to them to the National Gallery of Writing. Kick off your own gallery by asking students to share an artifact of their writing process that is significant—a favorite pen, something they have written, a diary. Anything. The discussion will reveal much about the students and their experience and habits as writers. After your literary show and tell session, work together to set up a class or school gallery, as part of the National Gallery of Writing.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Value of Questioning in Professional Growth

When I started teaching, I recognized the value of learning from teachers who had more experience and wisdom than I. Through a formal mentoring program at my school, I was assigned two long-term veterans as mentors, and we observed each others’ classroom practices and made time (when we could) to discuss how things were going.

As I look back, I am certainly grateful for the support that came from those mentoring relationships; I know that many new teachers get a much less auspicious start than I did. But as I reflect on the work my mentors and I did together, I see a way in which my perception of the experience was fundamentally flawed: I was seeking models of effective teaching practice when I really should have been looking for models of effective professional learning.

To be sure, I engaged in the professional development behaviors that I knew how to do. I bought books on topics that related to the courses and content I taught. I subscribed to English Journal and vowed (sometimes successfully) to read each issue. I even secured funding to attend an NCTE Convention. But none of those activities really “stuck” because I was engaging in them rather passively and superficially. I looked for resources that seemed topically relevant, saw what they had to offer, and either acted on them or didn’t.

What I lacked was the ability to formulate appropriate questions to address the issues and challenges I was facing in the classroom. Access to the best professional development resources around—publications, meetings, mentors—doesn’t mean much if those resources aren’t situated in a framework of active inquiry and application of new learning.

I’m likely being overly hard on myself. After all, when you don’t know very much, it’s difficult to know what you don’t know. That’s why, as I start work with students and other teachers this fall, I’m going to make a very conscious effort to acknowledge the centrality of good questions to the process of professional growth. Everyone is at a different place on the continuum of development, and the more models of sustained teacher inquiry we see in each other, the more likely we all are to engage in such practice.

Instead of reading a stack of student papers only to give them supportive feedback, I’ll also consider the questions their work implies both about their needs as learners and my needs as a teacher. Could I have built some additional scaffolding into the process to have achieved even better results? What do students need next to continue developing as thinkers and writers?

When student behavior disrupts the learning environment, rather than reaching for the phone to bring parents into the loop and achieve a quick fix, I’ll also inquire more deeply into what went wrong. How can I use the moment to teach respectfully about self-control? Did I contribute, even accidentally, to a cycle of conflict that could have been extinguished?

The needs of my students and my professional identity as a teacher are worth the investment of time that such reflective practice requires.

It took me too long to start to develop a sense of what it means to be an effective teacher-learner. It’s an important challenge for each of us to make explicit for each other our processes of asking good questions; seeking high-quality, relevant resources; and implementing action-based solutions. Whether you’re a mentor or mentee (and we’re all really both, officially or unofficially) this fall, I hope you’ll also work to bring to the foreground the importance of inquiry to the professional identity of teachers in your building.