Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Focus on Native American Heritage

National American Indian Heritage Month (G) is recognized each November as a time to learn more about the history and heritage of Native American peoples. These resources provide strategies to explore Native American literature and heritage in your own classroom.

Many people think that Native Americans are a vanished people—that they do not exist in the present day. In the lesson plan “Native Americans Today” (E), teachers use photo essays and other texts to introduce students to Native children and their families, thereby countering the idea that Native people no longer exist. Students then compare and contrast their ideas about Native Americans at the beginning of the lesson with what they now know. The Language Arts article "Proceed with Caution: Using Native American Folktales in the Classroom" (E) explains the importance of selecting texts that include realistic and accurate presentations of Native American peoples. The article includes guidelines for evaluating and selecting Native American literature.

Examine two speeches by Shawnee Chief Tecumseh with the ReadWriteThink lesson Battling for Liberty: Tecumseh's and Patrick Henry's Language of Resistance (M) and ask students to consider Tecumseh's politically effective and poetic use of language. This lesson extends the study of Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech to demonstrate the ways Native Americans also resisted oppression through rhetoric.

The book, Roots and Branches: A Resource of Native American Literature, (M-S) offers teachers an opportunity to learn and teach about Native American literatures in context. It includes lessons, units, and activities keyed to grade level. Additionally there are detailed annotated bibliographies to direct the teacher to a wealth of additional resources. "Contemporary American Indian Life in The Owl's Song and Smoke Signals" (S) from English Journal explores how to teach the novel and film together in a unit that "paints a realistic picture of contemporary American Indian life" while inviting students to identify with protagonists who grow in both self-awareness and their appreciation of others. The English Journal article "Hoop Dancing: Literature Circles and Native American Storytelling" (S-C) explores strategies teachers can use to address the misrepresentations of Indian culture through the study of Native American oral traditions and literatures.

Reading Native American Literature (S-C) is ideal for high school and college teachers who want to teach units or courses on Native American literature. The book includes primary material provided in appendixes that can be photocopied for classroom use.

Do you have additional suggestions? We'd love to hear them!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Celebrate National Family Literacy Day!

National Family Literacy Day, celebrated across the U.S., focuses on special activities and events that showcase the importance of family literacy programs. First held in 1994, the annual event is officially celebrated on November 1st, but many events are held throughout the month of November. Schools, libraries, and other literacy organizations participate through read-a-thons, celebrity appearances, book drives, and more.

As both a parent and a teacher, I know it’s critical that we make the connection between home and school. The following resources from NCTE and ReadWriteThink.org provide more ideas for fostering family literacy.

As children learn to write, parents and family members can support their progress in a variety of ways. The NCTE document "How to Help Your Child Become a Better Writer" details some useful tips, and is available in both English and Spanish.

Bursting with the energetic voices of young writers and their families, Family Message Journals: Teaching Writing through Family Involvement, (E) follows the development of emergent and beginning writers as they explore the power and joy of written communication. View the lesson plans based on this book and written by the author, Julie Wollman.

NCTE's Becoming Teammates: Teachers and Families as Literacy Partners (E) offers a bold new look at how teachers and families can work together to build family-school relationships that value and respect each other’s perspectives on literacy. This book features the voices of parents, teachers, graduate students, and preservice teachers.

In Reading and Writing and Teens: A Parent’s Guide to Adolescent Literacy, (M-S) author Cathy Fleischer, an English professor and mother of teenagers, explains what current research tells us about reading, writing, technology, and standards and testing – and gives specific suggestions for what parents and caregivers can do to help children succeed, both in school and outside the classroom.

The Family Writing Project: Creating Space for Sustaining Teacher Identity” (S), an article from English Journal shares a report on the study of family writing projects in an urban school district. Using the concept of “third space,” they describe the influence of this family literacy program on teacher practice.

The themed issue of English Leadership Quarterly Leadership Roles in Family Literacy Projects (TE) covers the topic of family literacy with articles such as “Fostering Literacy: Connecting Families with Schools” and “Building Home and School Literacy Partnerships: A Principal’s Perspective”.

Visit ReadWriteThink.org’s Parent & Afterschool Resources (G) for an array of activities you can recommend to families and caregivers to make connections between literacy learning in and out of the school setting.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Blog Round -Up - Literacy

This week’s blog round-up features a potpourri of blogs and commentaries on literacy—for educators and all their students.

For younger students:

In "Summer Must-Read for Kids? Any Book" (New York Times August 2, 2010), Tara Parker-Pope shares research from two NCTE members at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Richard Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen ‘s three-year study found that children who read books of their own choice over the summer gained as much, if not more, than children who attended summer school.

Rebecca Alber writes on Edutopia.org (August 4, 2010) asking (and answering) "How Important is Teaching Literacy in All Content Areas?".

Former Secretary of Education Susan B. Neuman notes "Public Media's Impact on Young Readers" (Education Week August 9, 2010) and suggests using public television to distribute high quality literacy resources to families and children of poverty so the children can gain literacy skills they need to begin school.

For high school students:

Holly Epstein Ojalvo and Shannon Doyne write in The Learning Network Blog on "Teaching ‘The Great Gatsby’ With The New York Times" (August 3, 2010).

For college students:

NCTE member Mike Rose, author of many books, including Writer's Block: The Cognitive Dimension, has two August commentaries in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In “Colleges Need to Re-Mediate Remediation " (August 3, 2010), Rose describes his work with a student named Kevin through the remediation program he helped develop at his college. Through the program Kevin was able to build his writing and reading skills and move out of remediation into “regular” college courses. Rose writes again in “Why America Needs a Smithsonian of Basic Skills” (August 8, 2010) and proposes “ a conceptual sea change in the way the nation understands and deals with the issue of academic underpreparation,” including a way to teach students across subject areas.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Developing Effective Writing Programs: Help for High Schools

The new book Taking Initiative on Writing: A Guide for Instructional Leaders by Anne Ruggles Gere, Hannah A. Dickinson, Melinda J. McBee Orzulak, and Stephanie Moody (copublished by NCTE and NASSP) offers practical strategies and extensive resources to help principals and teachers develop effective writing programs in their high schools. Read on for a taste of this book, taken from the opening chapter:


The headline reads, “Writing Scores Drop Again,” and your phone has been ringing all day with parents, board members, and media representatives asking how you plan to improve writing instruction in your school.


A group of business leaders meets with you to talk about how your school can help prepare students for the world of work. They emphasize that they need employees who can write effectively, and they imply that students from your school don’t meet their standards.


On a return visit, a recent graduate of your school, an excellent student who went on to the university, says that she felt very well prepared in math and science, but she didn’t feel ready for college writing.

As an instructional leader, you have probably experienced a scenario like one of these—or it is a situation you are trying to avoid. You no doubt know that writing is increasingly important in the twenty-first century. You may be aware that U.S. workers write more now than at any time in history and that colleges expect students to be able to write well. The responsibility of preparing students to be college- and career-ready writers may be weighing heavily on you, and you might be feeling increasing pressure to take some action. The challenges of high-stakes writing tests; the expectations of stakeholders, including parents, board members, and central administration; and underprepared faculty all contribute to the weight.

You’ve been dealing with local and state writing standards for several years, and now national core standards for writing have emerged. You’re likely wondering how to help teachers in your school face the challenges of preparing students for national graduation and workplace standards such as the following:

  • Establish and refine a topic or thesis that addresses a specific task and audience.
  • Support and illustrate arguments and explanations with relevant details, examples, and evidence.
  • Create a logical progression of ideas and events, and convey the relationships among them.
  • Develop and maintain a style and tone appropriate to the purpose and audience.
  • Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard written English, including grammar, usage, and mechanics.
  • Write effectively in a variety of school subjects.
  • Assess the quality of one’s writing and strengthen it through revision.
  • Use technology as a tool to produce, edit, and distribute writing.

English language arts teachers do play key roles in helping students become writers who can meet standards like these, but they cannot do it alone. In fact, some English teachers are not entirely confident about teaching writing. It will take a team effort. You have probably been an instructional leader long enough to know that improving student learning requires effort from many people headed in the same direction. Perhaps you’d like to exert leadership in developing an effective program of writing instruction in your school, but you’re not sure where to begin.

This book will help you. It recognizes that you are a busy and cost-conscious instructional leader who needs a way to move forward. It lays out a full sequence of activities designed to assist you in creating an effective program of writing instruction in your school, an effective writing initiative. This sequence includes assessing the current program, developing a plan, implementing action steps, and continuing to sustain and improve the teaching of writing in your school.

Each chapter lays out a series of steps to make the process manageable, and each chapter includes the evaluative tools, checklists, and guides that you will need. Each chapter also includes links to online resources developed by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the association known for its effective professional development for writing teachers.


Have you participated in the development of a schoolwide writing program? Share your experiences in the comments!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Piecing Together the Copyright Puzzle

Copyright Symbol by Horia VarlanFiguring out copyright can be like piecing together a puzzle. You have a good idea how it’s supposed to work in the end, but all the little pieces can be confusing to piece together.

These links can help you learn more about copyright yourself and teach students about fair use and copyright. In no time, you’ll move from scattered pieces to a full picture of copyright and fair use.

Classroom Resources

Check out the Media Education Lab website for key resources and curriculum materials. The site includes links to My Pop Studio, which focuses on media literacy for girls 9–14, and Assignment Media Literacy resources for K–12 students. You’ll find songs and video clips that you can use with students or in your professional development workshops.

Copyright on the Web, from CyberBee, is a simple FAQ interactive that younger students can explore to learn more about copyright.

Older students can use the Digital Slider from the Copyright Advisory Network to test whether the works they want to use are covered by copyright. The Fair Use Evaluator, also from the Copyright Advisory Network, steps content creators through the process of creating a fair use defense.

Teaching Copyright, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), is a collection of five lesson plans on copyright, fair use, file sharing, and remixing.

The Fair Use section of the Center for Social Media website includes teaching materials and educational resources on fair use of documentary film and online video.

The Campus Guide to Copyright Compliance from the Copyright Clearance Center provides a thorough overview of copyright, fair use, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Copyright, from University Publishing of Washington State University, recommended by NCTE & CCCC member William Condon, includes information on everything about copyright from music to the Internet. The Public Domain Chart and Fair Use section are great classroom resources.

In addition to resources on copyright, you may want to know something about Creative Commons. For a great overview, check out “The Beauty of ‘Some Rights Reserved’: Introducing Creative Commons to Librarians, Faculty, and Students” from the November issue of the Association of College and Research Libraries publication C&RL News. The About section of the Creative Commons website offers movies, comics, and FAQs.

Issues for Discussion

If you’re ready to ask students to think critically about the complex issues that copyright law raises, you’ll find ideas on these sites. Some are meant to provide background for you, the teacher, while others are appropriate for sharing in the classroom.

The role of “fair use” in a time of CHANGE, a 2009 lecture by Lawrence Lessig, raises intriguing questions about the way copyright works for print-based texts versus video-based texts and introduces the idea of Creative Commons as an alternative. The video is 66 minutes long, so you may want to ask students to view it outside of class and save class time for discussion.

Copyright: The Elephant in the Middle of the Glee Club, from the blog Balkinization, points out the glaring problems with the instruction at William McKinley High School on the television show Glee. There’s lots of fun and songs, but also a lot of apparently teacher-sanctioned copyright violation. The article will lead to lively discussion among students who watch the Fox TV show.

The Inbox Blog post Mixing or Plagiarizing? raises questions about how print-based text was recently borrowed in a German novel that the author defends as a cultural remix. Students can read the related news articles and discuss whether the copying was fair use or a violation of the original writer's copyright.

Challenging a YouTube Video Take Down is a short, and likely memorable, introduction to the fair use in using video clips to create a new work. Classroom discussion might focus on how the principles of fair use apply in other contexts. Students might also search other sites to learn how to protest a take down on another website.

Can You Copyright Your Tweets? refutes the position that Twitter posts are too short to be protected by copyright. The post comes from the blog 95Years, recommended by @jensmyth. Check the blog for the latest controversies involving technology and social media. Because some information on the site is not appropriate for your typical classroom, the resource is best for teachers rather than students.

The xkcd comic “Steal This Comic” is a short, pointed discussion starter for the issues surrounding music copyright. Whether you agree with xkcd’s take on the issue or not, it’s an interesting way to introduce the topic.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo of copyright symbol by Horia Varlan]

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Challenging the Metaphor of Scaffolding for Supporting Student Readers

In her new book Adolescent Literacy and the Teaching of Reading: Lessons for Teachers of Literature, author Deborah Appleman relies heavily on the pedagogical metaphor of scaffolding to describe the support we can offer students as they develop as readers in our literature classrooms.

Appleman notes that while “primary school teachers may not as easily question the need to explicitly model and scaffold reading processes, teachers of adolescents all too often assume that their students already possess the knowledge to become successful readers” (16-17). As a secondary English teacher, I have come to understand the need for such support, but I’m afraid that I’d never really thought too much the implications of the metaphor behind that word scaffolding. I hadn’t considered the limits—the rigidity, uniformity, and linearity—such a “building” metaphor might imply, leading to one-size-fits all, teacher-directed support in the classroom.

It’s fitting then, that it’s a paper by Anne Haas Dyson—whose work focuses largely on early literacy development—has recently challenged my understanding of scaffolding and helped me appreciate more fully the challenge and promise of supporting adolescent readers in the ways Appleman describes in her new book.

In “Weaving Possibilities: Rethinking Metaphors for Early Literacy Development,” Dyson explains that “[w]hile scaffolding is a vertical metaphor, one that represents how more skillful others support [students’] progress within one activity, weaving has a more horizontal dimension. It suggests how [students’] progress in any one activity is supported by their experiences in varied activities.”

Many of the excellent examples of scaffolding that Appleman describes benefit from being re-thought in Dyson’s terms. When Appleman describes an American literature teacher who responds to students’ interests in digital literacies by having students explore war-related blogs and complete an assignment called “The Apps They Carried” before reading a short story by Tim O’Brien, she is acknowledging the nonlinear, student-centered ways teachers can support students as readers across a variety of contexts.

When Appleman discusses a group of students reading the short story “The Boy without a Flag,” she tells of students performing a close reading of The Pledge of Allegiance, writing their own pledge, and composing collaborative poems based on the sentence frame “I am a ___ without a ___,” she’s exploring another model of support that is enhanced by metaphorical re-examination. Enacted ineffectively or without clear intention and purpose, these activities may end up seeming disconnected from the reading activity. In the carefully managed, responsive classroom Appleman depicts, these activities “allow us to see and allow space for the diverse intentions and resources of [students]” as they grow as readers and interpreters of text (Dyson).

When I first read Dyson’s critique of scaffolding, I didn’t know quite what to make of it—after all, the unchallenged term has become a staple of the teaching lexicon. But as I read each of Appleman’s cases of teachers tapping into linguistic and non-linguistic resources, school-sponsored and out-of-school literacies, and diverse life experiences of our students, its value started to make sense.

It’s not a rigid set of “before, during, and after” activities—and certainly not scripted curricula and more oppressive standardization (even that which nominally includes “scaffolding”)—that our students need. They need teachers who are supported and encouraged to learn more about their students and more about the ways to match their students’ needs with effective pedagogical practice that will give us a chance to weave success with adolescents as they face increasingly challenging text in and out of school.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Fun and Painless Summer Learning

Giraffe Photo by Jon OvingtonWhen I was in grade school, I regularly sat down with educational workbooks that Mom had picked up at the store and filled out pages and pages of worksheets. I even played teacher, assigning worksheets to my younger sisters and brother and then grading them.

I’m pretty sure that I’m the exception though. Most kids will not voluntarily spend summer vacation playing school. In fact, the families you talk with may tell you that it’s hard to find a way to sneak in summer learning without their children and teens staging a revolt.

How can you make summer learning so fun and painless that kids won’t even notice? Encourage families to tie educational projects to the things they’re already doing and the events they’re already talking about. Playing school probably isn’t going to work for most families, but reading texts and doing some research about the things kids and teens are already interested in will.

The Calendar on the ReadWriteThink site has dozens of activities that you can urge parents to try as part of their regular fun during the summer. If the family is planning any of these events, for instance, there are related calendar activities:

Remind families that the dates don’t matter as much as their connection to what they are already doing together. Ice cream was first sold commercially on June 8th for example, but families can check out the books and websites from that calendar entry whenever they take their trip.

If children and teens are already interested in specific topics, there are key dates in the calendar families can visit for more information on subjects such as dinosaurs, the moon, and railroads.

Current events are also a great lead for educational discussions. As hurricane season gears up, for example, families can visit the entry on Hurricane Katrina for resources to explore together.

Of course, there are also specific holidays that lend themselves to educational explorations. Make sure families know about the entries for Juneteenth, Flag Day, and Independence Day.

For more resources, you can also point families to the New York Times Learning Network. This free site is a great option for more information on a current or historical event, and often provides educational materials on breaking news topics. Be sure to point out the Student Challenge The Times as Your Summer Reading, a contest for students ages 13–25.

Whatever families do this summer, remind them to keep the summer learning fun and painless. The more educational activities are connected to the summer fun families already have planned, the more effective and engaging it will be. After all, students don’t have to realize they’re doing something educational for summer learning to happen!

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Jon Ovington]

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Ten Things You’ll Want To Read This Summer

Whether summer means time to read for fun or to prepare for teaching in the Fall, I bet you’re beginning to gather that reading list.

You probably know where to find details on the year’s award-winning children’s and teen books. You can always check the NCTE Online Store for the newest pedagogical books and some great bestsellers. And I bet you plan to spend some time this summer digging into the constantly expanding resources on the ReadWriteThink site.

Maybe you’re looking for something new though. How about some online resources to explore? Here are some great sites you’ll want to read and explore this summer:

  1. The Goddess of YA Literature
    Blogger Teri Lesesne posts excellent reviews of young adult novels regularly. You can keep up with the newest books as well as find titles to add to your reading list. Be sure to check out her Picture Book Monday category for fast recommendations on books you can use with students from kindergarten to college. Looking for more blogs? Try YA Books Central Blog, Abby the Librarian and Charlotte's Web.
  2. Profhacker
    Just settling into its new home with The Chronicle of Higher Ed, this must-read blog shares “tips, tutorials, and commentary on pedagogy, productivity, and technology in higher education.” Recent entries have explored Effective Summer Planning and Modeling Civility and Use of Evidence in the Classroom.
  3. TEDTalks
    Spend some time viewing videos of the wonderful conversations that are part of the TED program. Any of the videos is bound to get you thinking, but be sure to look for useful “Ideas Worth Spreading” in those tagged Education, Writing, and Literature.
  4. inkpop: The Online Community of Rising Stars in Teen Lit
    Want to read young adult texts so fresh they aren’t even on paper yet? This HarperCollins site always has five texts available for reading and commentary. Meant to supplement the publisher’s submissions process, the site also gives teens and teachers access to the freshest drafts out there.
  5. Text Messages: Recommendations for Adolescent Readers
    Listen to this monthly ReadWriteThink podcast for recommendations on great books you can share with young adult readers. The most recent episode focuses on New Voices in Young Adult Literature.
  6. Chatting About Books: Recommendations for Young Readers
    ReadWriteThink’s monthly podcast on children’s literature for ages 4 through 11 discusses resources related to a specific theme and includes suggestions for related activities. Check out Shiver Me Timbers: Books About Pirates or Chapter Book Series Worth Starting for some great reads.
  7. One Book, One Twitter (1B1T)
    Based on the Big Read projects, 1B1T is connecting readers across the Internet. There’s a School Library Journal article that explains the project in more details. To see it in action, check the community discussion now going on about Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. It’s a great demonstration of how online tools can bring readers together!
  8. The Daily Riff
    Looking for a new approach to educational news? The Daily Riff promises to “‘sniff and sift’ through our edu-culture, ‘curating’ news and opinion in quick, digest-sized take-aways for you to use and share.” You may not agree with everything you read, but you’ll find some provocative (and cool) stuff.
  9. Edutopia
    Check in on the work of the George Lucas Educational Foundation for inspiring classroom success stories, educator blogs, and special reports. Try the Magazine link for new resources each month. Right now, you can read about College Applications and Improving School Communication with Google.
  10. National Gallery of Writing
    Get lost for a while reading the submissions in the gallery exhibits. Browse the galleries or search for something specific. Either way, there are some excellent texts waiting to be read!


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Literacy Coaching: Empowering Teachers as Agents of Change

Earlier this month, I had the chance to attend a talk given by Diane Stephens, who was sharing her research on teachers’ attitudes toward literacy coaches in the South Carolina Reading Initiative. While I found value in the entire presentation of her findings, I’ve been mulling over this particularly powerful observation that she offered near the end of her presentation: “Change looks like agency.”

We know that in K-12 classrooms, change often looks far more like disempowering chaos than it looks like agency. From year to year, teachers are assigned different grades or courses to teach, or different spaces in which to teach them; curricula are adopted and abandoned; administrators come and go. From day to day, the composition of any one class changes with absences and transfers; from moment to moment, with late arrivals and early departures, mood swings (student and teacher), and shifts in activity.

I find it valuable to think about my work as a literacy coach in the terms Diane offered: helping teachers (amidst all of the day-to-day change that characterizes life in a school) become agents of reform in their own classrooms—to use student work to help them identify specific needs for change, and then to collaborate to plan for, enact, and reflect on that change.

As I learn more about the political history of this job called “literacy coach,” I’ve come to understand that not all coaches have the luxury of positioning themselves as teacher empowerers or supporters of change through agency. I won’t go into the gory details here, but reading the online comment sections on some recent findings about the efficacy of literacy coaching has been quite educative.

As a coach, I keep NCTE’s Principles of Professional Development posted near my desk, and I pay special attention to the principle I find most central to my work and highly resonant with Diane’s closing remark: “Professional development treats teachers as the professionals they are.”

Over the next few weeks while I’m wrapping up coaching cycles with some teachers, I’ll also be meeting with other teachers to start planning for next year. My mantra in those conversations as I listen carefully to them talk about their professional learning plans for the coming year will be “Change looks like agency.” What a great process to be a part of.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What Do You Appreciate in a Teacher?

This week in the United States is Teacher Appreciation Week, a time set aside each year to honor the hard work that educators do every day in the classroom and beyond.

The challenge of the celebration is to try to remember every teacher I need to thank. I don’t have a list of them all, and I’m afraid I’ll leave someone out.

I’ve been puzzling over the problem for several days and peeking at resources on the PTA website for a solution. That’s how I happened upon the PTA’s Teacher Appreciation Week Polls. Their poll about teacher characteristics captured my attention:

[Poll also available on the PTA Website]

Last time I looked, the response “Communication” was in the lead, but the stats seem close and may have changed by the time you read this. After all, a teacher really needs all those qualities to excel—and a few more.

A teacher needs to understand a lot of content material. She needs a giant dose of compassion for students and colleagues. And she has to love the job.

So many of the teachers I have known have all those characteristics. Even if I had the entire month of May, I could never name them all.

There have been (and are) so many teachers in my life. You have inspired, taught, and mentored me. How can I possibly honor you all? I’m turning to the power of social networking.

I’ve posted this little thank you on Facebook and Twitter:

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week! Here's to all teachers everywhere. Thank you for everything you do. (Please repost!)

Help me spread the word. Please repost the greeting and make sure all the teachers who touch our lives know how much we appreciate them.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Helping Readers See Themselves in a Text

Every week during summer vacation, mom used to load us into the car and drive us to the library. While my sisters and brother were racing around with picture books and whatever toys they could get their hands on, I snuck off to a quieter corner of the library where the children’s biographies were shelved.

I plopped myself on the floor and ran my finger over the spines, looking for just the right one. I read the names to myself: “George Washington. Thomas Edison. Another Washington. Ben Franklin. Patrick Henry. Daniel Boone."

It would have been so much easier if the books had been arranged by the subject, rather than the author. There were dozens and dozens of people I didn’t want to read about. Eventually though, I’d find one that was perfect: “YES! Dolly Madison!”

I’d pull the book off the shelf and begin reading immediately. My favorite books were ones that began when the person was close to my own age. Even though we might have lived decades or even centuries apart, we had things in common—whether it was trying to learn how to cook or fussing over school work.

When we finally loaded back into the car, everyone else had colorful books about cartoon people or lovable animals. My arms were filled with stories of Eleanor Roosevelt, Martha Washington, Juliette Low, and Dolly Madison. Before the week was out, I would read them cover to cover and beg to go back to the library to find more.

Occasionally I’d put a book about George Washington or Daniel Boone on the top of my reading pile, but they felt like text books from history or social studies class. I’d make myself read them, but they were always like bitter medicine you suffered through so you could get the spoonful of sugar afterward.

It all seems slightly funny now. I was doing what any reader wants to: I was looking for stories that reflected by own experiences. I wanted stories about young girls, about their accomplishments as women, and about the journeys they took from child to adult.

Don’t bother me with stories of boys becoming apprentices, men fighting battles, or chopping their way through forests. Show me people who are like me. Show me people who are like the person I want to become.

In my own way, I guess I have been celebrating El día de los niños/El día de los libros (Children’s Day/Book Day) every day, from the moment I started demanding to see myself in the texts that I read. At its heart, Día is about making that kind of connection between readers and what they read. It’s about connecting with readers, in their own languages and with texts that they can identify with.

Every reader should have the experience of looking at a text and making connections based on their experiences, culture, and heritage. With ever-increasing class sizes and the rich diversity of our classrooms, finding the right text for each student is quite a challenge. Better is the goal of equipping students to find these texts themselves.

If I had waited for someone else to find books for me on those trips to the library, who knows if I would have found the right books. Somewhere, however, I picked up the skill to search through the stacks till I found the texts that I connected with. That’s the skill I hope to teach students. My ReadWriteThink lesson plan “Assessing Cultural Relevance: Exploring Personal Connections to a Text” demonstrates one technique I’ve tried.

In the lesson, students work as a class to evaluate a nonfiction or realistic fiction text for its cultural relevance to themselves and as a group. After completing this full-class activity, students search for additional, relevant texts. By the end of the lesson, students have found a book and written a review about its relevance to themselves and their cultural background.

The books they find help them see themselves in what they read, but more importantly, they practice and refine techniques for finding and selecting books that they connect with. With that knowledge, they too can make every day El día de los niños/El día de los libros (Children’s Day/Book Day).


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Everything I Know about Differentiation I Learned from William Shakespeare

In Act 2 of King Lear, the Duke of Cornwall addresses Goneril’s servant, Oswald, by asking him, “What is your difference?”

When we teach a challenging text such as a scene from a Shakespearean drama, we know that students will have the best chance of understanding it if we approach it with an intentional awareness of the differences among our students in terms of readiness, interests, and learning styles. If only determining those differences among students were as easy (and less abusive) as Cornwall makes it sound.

What if, in some significant ways, it is as easy as asking students, “What is your difference?” This article from Educational Leadership in which students share their answers to the question “What helps you learn?” is a compelling reminder that students themselves are often the best (and most underutilized) resource for learning about the variations in our classrooms.

The students in the article attend a school with a focus on individualized student learning, so don’t be surprised to see their level of articulateness and self awareness is well beyond what you’d get from your students at first. They likely didn’t all start that way, and you certainly don’t always need such fine grained information to begin responding to student needs.

There are ways, though, to help students build the capacity for self-awareness about their learning strengths and needs. (Cornwall gets Oswald to talk by commanding him to “Speak!” This follow-up prompt is not recommended for classroom use).

Instead, try modeling reflective talk after a learning experience. Explaining what helped you learn a specific concept or skill can be a powerful way to get students to think about the way their needs and preferences influence their learning. Repeated reflective writing—before, during, and after a learning experience—is another effective way to generate student metacognitive awareness, while you reap the benefit of knowing more about their learning styles.

The real art of teaching begins once students share that information with us and we begin responding intentionally to it. I know that when I taught King Lear to seniors in AP English, I failed to take the time to ask questions such as “What helps you learn?” My students and I missed out on this rich opportunity partly because I didn’t think it mattered in a “rigorous course” (wrong) and partly because I wouldn’t have known what to do with the information I got (maybe wrong).

Even if, like me, you’re not sure what you would do with knowledge of your students’ differences, consider using these remaining weeks of school to gather as much information you can about your current students’ learning styles. In the luxury of summer, then, take some time to think about how your current units and learning and assessment activities might be varied in light of what you’ve uncovered. Use some of the ideas from the ReadWriteThink.org Strategy Guide on Differentiating Instruction to help fuel your thinking.

It may seem odd to plan for a group of students you already had and won't have again, but differentiation is something teachers do, not something teachers get done. Thinking about differentiating by specific student needs will be useful work whether or not you see similar patterns in your students in the fall. You’ll be ready to start responding when students walk through the doors next year, ready to start speaking their differences to you.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Inspiring Writers with Student Poetry

It’s National Poetry Month, so teachers everywhere are sharing poetry and experimenting with poetry writing in the classroom. The challenge is that those two activities are sometimes at cross purposes. Reading poetry by the literary greats can silence the muse of even the most imaginative student.

Sharing poems written by students alongside those in the literature textbooks can be the solution. The process simultaneously tells students that their poetry is just as important as any other poets and provides students with level-appropriate models for their own writing.

National Gallery of WritingThe National Gallery of Writing is the ultimate resource for student poetry examples. Not only will you find hundreds of poems written by students from all over the United States, but you also can show students that their work is just as worthy of publication as those Shakespearean sonnets they’ve been reading.

The process is simple. Go to the The National Gallery of Writing, find some poems you like and share them with students. You might also send students to several specific galleries and let them find something they like.

You can search the Gallery for the keyword “poetry” in the description field. Narrow your search further by state and country, if you’d like to find local or regional student work.

Here are some collections that have a number of wonderful, classroom-ready poems. Note that some galleries also include fiction, memoirs, and other student writing.

After students write their own poems, you can invite them to add their work to an open gallery. The NCTE-CEE Commission on the Teaching of Poetry Writing, for instance, is open to all poets. You may find a specific gallery for your geographical area that is open for submissions as well. Additionally, you can still start a local gallery for students in your class or at your school if you like.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Writing Our Way Through the End of School and Into Next Year

Writing is such a balm when the spring sun shines or even when April is “cruelest of all.” Even our toughest students can usually be persuaded to pen a poem this time of year. There are so many resources for teachers and students to use, and I’ve gathered up a few to share.

The National Gallery of Writing awaits more writing and more galleries. The Gallery will be open at least until June 2011 AND on October 20, 2010, we’ll celebrate our second National Day on Writing! What better affirmation for writers than to be published in a national gallery for people all over the world to see and read?

Maybe you and your students want to take a look at the Gallery before you decide what to publish. There are several local galleries and poems listed in the ideas section of the March 23 edition of INBOX. I’d start there.

You might try the website of the Academy of American Poets for a wealth of information and ideas for reading, writing, and learning about poetry and poets. I really like the Poetry Map and, of course, there’s the April 29 Poem in Your Pocket Day including many resources, even pocket-ready poems.

You might like to share in one of my fun activities. I compose haiku in my head when I’m walking my dog! I just observe something along the way—the sunrise, the breeze in the trees, the ducks on the pond—and I begin a line working toward a succinct 5-7-5 description. I hope you’ll improve on what I do by remembering to write the poems down when you get back from the walk! Or even better, students could carry a cell phone and either text (watch out for bumps along the path!) or call a friend with their haiku; they could carry an old-fashioned notebook.

I’d like to recommend three of the many NCTE books on poetry and teaching poetry:

Stephen Dunning’s and William Stafford’s time-tested NCTE book Getting the Knack is still among my favorites for down to earth ideas for getting our students writing poetry.

Bea Cullinan’s A Jar of Tiny Stars: Poems by NCTE Award-Winning Poets is an excellent collection of sample poems by children’s poets.

Jaime R. Wood’s Living Voices: Multicultural Poetry in the Middle School Classroom hooks in middle schoolers with lessons about poems by contemporary poets of color.

Mostly, I’d like to recommend you and your students join me in writing poetry for National Poetry Month in April!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How Online Professional Development Changed My Life

Chances are high that you wouldn’t be reading this if it weren’t for online professional development. I don’t mean that in the clichéd “If you can read this thank a teacher” way. What I mean is that I would never, ever have had the connections that led to writing these blog entries if it hadn’t been for the online professional development opportunities that came my way.

People who know me may not believe it, but I kept to myself as a teacher before I found opportunities to connect with other educators online. I read a lot about teaching, but I rarely discussed teaching strategies with others. I had some connections in the department where I taught, and I was a fellow of Writing Project site that no longer exists.

And then I got an email address and found that other college composition teachers were out there discussing what they do in the classroom online. I signed up Megabyte University, an email discussion list that was active from 1990 to 1997. There, I connected with other teachers who were interested in using computers in writing instruction, and I eventually found my voice and began participating—asking questions, sharing strategies, and planning projects. I found that the people who were names on the articles I read in College English and College Composition and Communication were kind, friendly folks who were willing to chat with a relatively inexperienced person like me.

To my conversations on email discussion lists, I added real-time chats on MOOs and IRC. I attended online conferences related to the face-to-face Computers and Writing Conference. Before I knew it, I had connections with colleagues in all corners of the country, and I had actually chatted with CCCC presidents and NCTE Committee Chairs. I even got up the gumption to send a personal email message to Peter Elbow to tell him how much I loved Writing with Power.

Without any reservation, I can say that I ended up writing this blog because of those first connections that I made online in the early 1990s. Online discussion led to new jobs, new teaching opportunities, and new ways to support other teachers using online tools.

None of the resources I tapped when I got started still exist in the same form today. Computer resources have evolved, and we teachers have developed new ways to connect and keep in touch today.

There are many great opportunities. I can’t promise that you’ll find yourself writing the Inbox blog after you participate in these online opportunities, but I can promise that you’ll find wonderful teachers who will share their ideas, listen to your strategies, and, if you’re just lucky, bring you opportunities that will invigorate your teaching every day.