Tuesday, February 23, 2010

It Takes a Community…

I don’t know a teacher who doesn’t want to make a difference in the learning and, yes, even the lives of her students—kind of what we signed up for. But, I also don’t know a one of us that can do that single-handedly. That’s why we gather to learn and collaborate together and that’s where learning communities come in.

Three exemplary learning communities come to my mind.

NCTE’s Pathways Professional Development Program is making a difference for over 1500 participants in 50+ schools and districts across the nation. Pathways participants collaborate in an online platform replete with resources to ask, study, and answer questions about their teaching. These teachers end up learning more about teaching and learning as they use the Pathways resources to reflect on and to change how they work with their students. For example, Michelle Beck, Curriculum Director, Effingham Community Schools, Illinois, notes,

"Pathways ended up being a great tool for us because we were able to tap into resources we would’ve never had access to otherwise. We were able to listen to podcasts and then discuss what we heard and talk about articles that researchers and other teachers had written. These were conversations we had never had before. We had never talked that deeply about our practice and why one thing may work better than another...That generated rich discussion, and that discussion prompted a lot of change within our English Department."

Another teacher community which you’ll see around NCTE is the Assembly for National Board Certified Teachers. Many states have cohorts of NBCTs, both teachers preparing to become board certified and those who already have. Did you know that one-third of this year’s Teachers of the Year are NBCTs?

The National Writing Project has served as a professional community for over 30 years, for thousands of teachers from around the nation (and the world) and in many disciplines. Over 25 years ago, the Capitol Writing Project (the Richmond, Virginia, site of the National Writing Project) changed my teaching life by anchoring me in a community of colleagues who taught me and sustained me in my teaching. I trace back the best of what I know about teaching writing to six weeks during one hot summer in Richmond when I was both a student and a teacher of writing—when I learned with others who encouraged me to keep learning, to try new methods, to reflect upon what I was doing, and to strive even when I didn’t want to. Throughout the summer, these colleagues were there both to support and to nudge me, and to this day I still work with some of them. I continue to be nurtured by that experience because it taught me how to keep on learning and gave me a way to continue to learn how to teach. From that writing project I became involved with my local and state affiliates and that’s how I came to NCTE.

I’m sure that those of us who have participated in learning communities don’t need a report to tell us how influential these communities are both on ourselves and on our students, but two recent reports have done just that:

• The National Staff Development Council’s “Professional Learning in the Learning Profession” points to the importance of learning communities for teachers.

• Met Life’s first in a series of reports from its annual survey of American teachers, Part 1: Effective Teaching and Leadership discusses what collaboration looks like in schools.

These reports can help us convince others of the significance of our learning together to enhance our effectiveness as teachers and in turn to improve our students’ learning. After all, it really does take a community.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mixing or Plagiarizing?

I doubt anyone was thinking about plagiarism when the CCCC 2010 theme, “The Remix: Revisit, Rethink, Revise, Renew,” was chosen, but given recent events in Germany literary world, plagiarism clearly fits the focus.

News articles last week announced that German teen author Helene Hegemann of the highly-acclaimed debut novel Axolotl Roadkill not only lifted passages from another novel, copying as much as an entire page with only minor changes, but she also denied that such copying was plagiarism. Her explanation, described in the New York Times’ article “Author, 17, Says It’s ‘Mixing,’ Not Plagiarism,” is simple and straightforward:

Although Ms. Hegemann has apologized for not being more open about her sources, she has also defended herself as the representative of a different generation, one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Ms. Hegemann in a statement released by her publisher after the scandal broke.

Mixing, for Hegemann, is borrowing from others and reshaping or fitting the borrowed text to create some new document. In music, mixing might involve borrowing a musical riff and then incorporating it in a new piece as a recurring theme or starting point for further variations. In literature, mixing might be taking a passage or scenario and rethinking it as part of some new text.

A blog entry on Hit & Run: Reason Magazine provides more details on Hegemann’s motives:

In comments to Buchmarkt, Hegemann cops to “ruthlessly robbing my friends, filmmakers, other writers, and myself,” but only in the context of a collaborative-creation model (leaving out the vexatious details about who gets paid when the collaboration is done).1

While it feels new to many of us, this kind of artistic theft has been around for centuries. Chaucer was remixing The Decameron in his Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare borrowed from any number of Italian renaissance texts. There’s more to mixing then just copying and pasting though. To be effective, the new use should go beyond the original, perhaps commenting on it or rethinking the original piece. T.S. Eliot, surely the Grand Mix Master of Modernism, wrote:

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. (“Philip Massinger,” The Sacred Wood: : Essays on Poetry and Criticism)

Does Hegemann’s mixing pass the test? Is she simply stealing, or is she rethinking and revising the text she borrows in a way that makes it better or different? Critics are split on the issue.

The Guardian suggests that Hegemann simply does not understand what she has done—“To her, coming from the cut-and-paste world of blogs and Facebook, what she's done is no more than ‘mixing.’” Student journalists label Hegemann’s copying as blatant plagiarism in the Indiana Daily Student and the Baylor Lariat Online. The comments on the New York Times’ Learning Network blog entry “What Are the Attitudes Toward ‘Cheating’ and Plagiarism Among Your Peers?” extend the discussion.

The situation is ripe for class discussion, but ultimately there are few conclusions. Is it mixing or plagiarism? I can’t be sure. I don’t read German, and I don’t have the two books. As a teacher, I know that simply adding a bibliographic citation doesn’t make it okay to insert a full page from another text into your own draft. But what would make such borrowing okay?

I keep returning to Eliot’s explanation. Borrowing may be okay if one works as Eliot’s good, mature poet. If a writer revises a text in a way that creates “something better, or at least something different,” perhaps it truly is mixing. Anything else, for me at least, seems like pale imitation at best and, quite possibly, plagiarism at worst.

Mixing or plagiarism? The one thing we can be sure of is that there many questions to consider, at CCCC in Louisville and beyond.


For more information on discussing plagiarism in the classroom, see “What’s the Best Plagiarism Detector?” and “Why I Don’t Worry about Plagiarism.”


1 I do not read German, so I’m quoting from various blogs and news articles online that have translated Hegemann’s comments, rather than taking passages from the original.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Finding a Way into the Networked English Classroom

I was out of the English classroom during the 2007 and 2008 school years, a time during which I perceived a digital revolution in reading and writing in and out of school settings. Barraged by blogs, wikis, social networking, Twitter, Ning (and a variety of other oddly-named Web 2.0 platforms and programs), it seemed to me that the world of the book and the notebook (or is it Kindle and iPad?) had become suddenly passé.

The truth is, of course, that there was nothing at all sudden about this digital revolution. Rather, it had been in full swing well before 2007, but I had not begun to find my professional entry point to the ongoing exploration of the potentials and pitfalls of the new communication age.

Discovering such an entry point—an intersection of that with which you’re already familiar and that which you and students need to know more about—is a valuable professional gift to give yourself and your students. In this week’s blog, I’ll share a partially realized version of one of my entry points (along with what I’ll do better next time) and offer with some resources that might facilitate the development of your own entry point.

At the end of last semester, a business/careers teacher asked our school librarian and me to facilitate a session for his students on verifying the credibility and usefulness of a web resource for a research project. Awash in ideas on how to best use a single fifty-minute session to launch into such a huge topic, we decided to play on our strengths as savvy navigators of search engines and the content they deliver us by adapting ideas from the ReadWriteThink.org resource “Hoax or No Hoax? Strategies for Online Comprehension and Evaluation.” As part of the lesson, we conducted carefully constructed think-alouds on how we’d use a search engine and evaluate sources using a variety of strategies.

As their ticket out the door, we asked students to tell us one thing they learned about using search engines to find content and how to evaluate a source once they find it. Their responses, unsurprisingly, revealed enormous gaps between Internet-savvy students who surf thoughtfully and intentionally…and those who seem not to understand that Google itself is not a content source.

(Case in point: As we tried to demonstrate the importance of cross-referencing sources, one particular student logged into Wikipedia and changed the entry we were about to project to contain significantly erroneous information. Much of the rest of the class was baffled, and our well-rehearsed think-aloud took a spontaneous diversion into a real-life example of the fallibility of Web-based research.)

When I deliver similar instruction with more time and to my own students, I’ll definitely keep the think-aloud component to model my processes for searching and evaluating, but I’ll also add a follow-up activity that I’m borrowing from some middle school colleagues. While students are engaged in the first steps of independent inquiry, I’ll meet with each of them for just a few minutes as they search and evaluate a site. Prompting them to engage in a scaled-down version of a think-aloud with five or so targeted questions, I’ll be able to uncover what the entire class still needs to know, what some individual students still need to know, and what I still need to learn about effective information navigation.

I’ll be the first to admit that my entry point into instruction in our network world is a relatively simple one. Or at least it seemed that way until I discovered how much I take for granted about the background knowledge and thought processes behind a basic Google search. You may already know the right entry point for your own students, or you may not know where to start. Either way, here are some NCTE resources that can get you going:

  • Check out Sarah Kajder’s fantastic new book, Adolescents and Digital Literacies: Learning Alongside Our Students. You’ll see cases of real teachers finding their way in the networked classroom and a framework and resources to get started (or further along) yourself.
  • Enroll in Bill Kist’s web seminar The Socially Networked English Classroom: Web 2.0 in the English Classroom if you’re ready to move beyond Google to blogs, wikis, and social networks.
  • From ReadWriteThink.org’s new professional development section, in the Reading Online strategy guide you’ll learn how online reading differs from offline reading and strategies to build and reinforce the skills that online reading requires.
  • Looking for a sustained examination of what 21st century curriculum and assessment looks like? Interested in tapping the rich resources and collaborations made available in a 21st century learning community? Consider enrolling in Pathways for 21st Century Literacies.
  • Don’t feel you have to do any of this alone! Check out the conversations in the NCTE Ning where you can learn about social networks while participating in one!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

African American Authors Online

It’s time for readers everywhere to collect texts for African American Read-Ins and Black History Month celebrations. You probably have some great resources in your library, but the Internet expands your options even further. Not only can you find audio and video recordings of authors reading their works, but you'll find rare texts that are not available anywhere else—like oral histories, personal letters, and even sheet music.

For this week’s blog, I’ve gathered a collection of links to resources that range from 18th century poetry to a blog entry written this week. Click away, read, and marvel at these rich resources. There's enough that you can visit a new site every day this month!

General Background Information

  1. African American History Month, from The Library of Congress
  2. Black History Month, from Biography.com
  3. Black History Month, from EDSITEment
  4. Black History, from The History Channel
  5. Culture and Change: Black History in America, from Scholastic (includes a video interview with Christopher Paul Curtis)


  1. A Brief Chronology of African American Literature, from San Antonio College Lit Web
  2. African American Poets, from Famous Poets and Poems
  3. African American Women Writers of the 19th Century, from The Schomburg Center at the New York Public Library
  4. African-American Women, from Duke University Library
  5. Black History, from Academy of American Poets
  6. Twenty-Eight Days Later, A Black History Month Celebration of Children's Literature, from The Brown Bookshelf (Check the archive links on the right for celebrations from 2008 & 2009 as well as a poster you can download and print)
  7. Video Interviews with children's book authors and illustrators, from Reading Rockets (includes an interview with recent Caldecott Medal winner Jerry Pickney)

Historical and Nonfiction Texts

  1. African-American Quotations, from InfoPlease
  2. African-American Sheet Music, 1850-1920, from the Library of Congress
  3. African American Cultural Heritage Tour, from the Smithsonian Institute
  4. American Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology, from American Studies Hypertexts at the University of Virginia
  5. The Church in the Southern Black Community, from Documenting the American South
  6. Electronic Text Center: African American, from the University of Virginia (Note this site includes texts about African Americans as well as by African Americans, so you will need to help students choose wisely to avoid mistakes.)
  7. In Those Days: African-American Life Near the Savannah River, from the National Park Service
  8. North American Slave Narratives, from Documenting the American South
  9. Notable Speeches and Letters by African Americans, from InfoPlease

Personal Histories

  1. Experience War: Stories from the Veterans History Project, from the Library of Congress
  2. Oral Histories, from the National Visionary Leadership Project, including histories from Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, and Faith Ringgold
  3. StoryCorps Griot, from National Museum of African American History and Culture

Blogs and More

  1. Sharon Draper's Blog Read details on the author’s trip to Africa, and comments on her books Just Another Hero and Sassy.
  2. Nikki Grimes Fan Page Check the Wall for responses from the author to comments posted by her fans.
  3. Alice Walker’s Blog Find new poems, fiction in progress, and a tribute to Walker’s friend, historian Howard Zinn, who passed away last week.