Monday, March 26, 2007

Showcasing Thinking in Portfolio Assessment

Published ten years ago, Bonita L. Wilcox’s English Journal article “Writing Portfolios: Active vs. Passive” may seem irrelevant to a discussion of the exciting possibilities of electronic portfolios (e-portfolios). The tension between teacher-driven, showcase portfolios and student-driven, reflective portfolios that Wilcox describes foreshadows the relationship among the three e-portfolio systems described in Kathi Yancey’s “Postmodernism, Palimpsest, and Portfolios: Theoretical Issues in the Representation of Student Work” (online assessment systems, print uploaded e-portfolios, and Web-sensible e-portfolios).

Wilcox constrasts active and passive portfolios:

While the passive portfolio sits on its laurels, the active portfolio is a place to record, collect, and fine-tune thinking as perceptions and ideas are formulated and reformulated. A passive portfolio is a “showcase” portfolio out of the writer’s hands, while an active portfolio is a “working” portfolio which changes and grows with new input as it creates and generates new output. The learning is in the process itself, and teachers need to show students how to think about that process more carefully. (34)
Wilcox’s active portfolio is a place where thinking happens, rather than a place where finished thoughts are archived—and that is precisely the kind of interaction that Web-sensible e-portfolios can support. Yancey describes the kind of student who authors such an e-portfolio as “one who can make multiple connections and who creates depth through multiplicity and elaboration, who can work in visual and verbal and aural modalities, who can offer a reader multiple narratives extending ever outward” (751).

Like Wilcox’s active portfolio, the e-portfolios that Yancey describes are a place where thinking happens. If the educational community can create the environment that supports portfolio galleries that showcase the thinking and reflection that students do, we’ll be well on our way to the best practice in e-portfolios.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Poems in My Commonplace Book

As part of this year’s National Poetry Month celebration, the Academy of American Poets offers a list of 30 Ways to Celebrate that includes a wide range of options for exploring poetry. Of the many possibilities, the one that caught my eye was “Start a commonplace book,” which the site explains:

Since the Renaissance, devoted readers have been copying their favorite poems and quotations into notebooks to form their own personal anthologies called commonplace books.
What a challenge! Which poems to choose? How to narrow the options? I don’t have space to share them all, so I’ll share just one: “This Is Just to Say by William Carlos Williams. It may not seem like a likely choice for me. I spend much of my time exploring symbolic poetry, full of mythological allusions and deep, complex imagery. “This Is Just to Say” is such a straightforward, little poem—but that’s why I have chosen it.

This Is Just to Say” is a poem that is approachable. With no real effort, I can spout off the words from memory, and it’s a poem that anyone can understand. No special degrees in literature are necessary. I’ve used it successfully as a model poem for students to parody and I listen happily to the Prairie Home Companion “Guy Noir” parody of the poem.

Yet beneath that simplicity is the sharp wit and careful pen of a great poet. The poem’s line breaks and precise wording provide such a sharp image and message. The plums of the poem are like all poetry for me, a guilty pleasure that I indulge in against all the nagging demands of my daily life. Tonight, I have lesson plans to edit, laundry to wash, and an essay to write; but instead I found myself indulging in the poems I love—“Forgive me / they were delicious.”

Monday, March 12, 2007

Teaching with Forbidden Words

The Gainesville Sun reported last week that a local high school teacher has been placed on leave “for giving students a poetry lesson that at least one parent claimed was inappropriate.” The poem is just one more example of the censorship practices that take place all too frequently in the U.S. The American Library Association reports that “More than a book a day faces expulsion from free and open public access in U.S. schools and libraries every year.”

What bothers me about this particular incident is what’s left out of the article. At no point does the writer identify the particular poem or words that caused the hubbub. The article tells us that the poem

  • was “inappropriate.”
  • used “some racially insensitive terminology.”
  • “included words . . . to describe or label other people and how the significance of those words have changed over time.”
  • highlighted “derogatory or inflammatory descriptions of groups of people.”
What we don’t know is what was really said, and that act of censorship simply extends the power of the poem. When people refuse to speak or read or hear certain words, those words become stronger, not weaker. In the Florida case, another parent explained that the poem in question
“What she taught in that class was more than just about words. It was also about the influence of words and that calling someone a name at any level will not only influence their life but it will also influence your life,” Hopper said. “It helped my son to understand that he should respect everyone.”
That’s what words used properly can do. The NCTE Guideline The Students’ Right to Read explains that when words and ideas are instead banned, “The most obvious and immediate victims are often found among our best and most creative English teachers, those who have ventured outside the narrow boundaries of conventional texts. Ultimately, however, the real victims are the students, denied the freedom to explore ideas and pursue truth wherever and however they wish.”

I don’t know what poem the teacher choose or the words involved, but I do know that given the chance I’d teach the same poem without reservation.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

What Texts Have You Read Today?

This week is Teen Tech Week, sponsored by the Young Adult Library Services Association, an event that asks us to think about the importance and availability of various technologies in the library. We may not all teach teens, but we certainly all use technology in the classroom in some way—and the students we teach interact with technologies regularly in the course of their normal daily lives.

The texts that students interact with have rapidly expanded from the days when the only definition of a text was a print-based book or magazine. While students interact with a range of print, visual, and sound texts, they do not always recognize that these many documents are texts (even though they may find all these texts in the library).

To encourage students to expand their definition of texts, try a simple activity in the classroom. Ask students to spend a few minutes freewriting about the role that technology plays in their lives. Next, ask students to brainstorm a list of technologies that they use, see, or know about in their notebooks, in order to give students a few minutes to gather their thoughts. You can ask questions to encourage their discovery:

  • What technology do you have in your desk, backpack, or locker?
  • What technology do you see in the classroom?
  • What technology do you see in other classrooms and locations in the school?
  • What technology do you see in the workplace (yours, a family member’s, or someone else’s)?
  • What technology do you see on your way from home to school?
  • What technology do you see in the mall or grocery store?
  • What technology did you see or use when you were younger?

If students have not included nondigital technologies in their list, share the first two paragraphs of the definition of technology from Wikipedia. The List of Technologies from Wikipedia may also stimulate discussion.

Once you have an extensive list of technologies assembled, step back and review the entire list with the students.If any patterns emerge from the list, take a few minutes to talk about the comparisons among technologies. As they look at the list, ask students to explore the various texts related to the technologies in more detail. Your goal is simply to ask students to think more deeply about the various texts that they use, see, or know.

Many follow-ups to this activity are possible:

  • Explore the defiinition of texts and literacy more completely with students at the elementary, middle, or secondary/college level.
  • Have students track all the technologies that they interact with over the course of a day and then draw conclusions about their “dependence” on technology.
  • Ask students to choose a favorite technology and discuss the ways it influences their lives.
  • Have students write technology autobiographies that explore why they use the technologies that they do.