Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Becoming an Educational Advocate

President Bush urged for NCLB renewal and a new program to provide “Pell Grants for Kids” in last night’s State of the Union address. If you’re a teacher, both of these ideas may ultimately affect the work you do every day—as well as the lives of the many students you teach.

As a teacher, you are highly qualified to talk about how such programs in the past have affected you and your students. The challenge is determining how to make your voice heard as educational legislation is discussed by state and national legislators. NCTE has the answers!

Every spring, NCTE sponsors an advocacy event on Capitol Hill. This year, NCTE’s “Education Policy and English Language Arts Day” takes place on April 17. Participants can learn more about how educational policy decisions are shaped, talk to NCTE leaders about advocacy efforts, and learn how to schedule meetings with Congressional representatives and staff.

If you can’t make it to D.C., you can still participate in advocacy efforts by visiting members of Congress in your home district to discuss your feelings about NCLB and other education initiatives. NCTE provides step-by-step guidelines to help you get your voice heard.

Sandra Hayes, currently the chair of NCTE’s Middle Level Section and a teacher at Becker Middle School in Becker, Minnesota, has attended NCTE Advocacy Day in the past and knows the value of talking to legislators personally. “I think these kinds of meetings give face, voice, and context to the issues,” she explains. “We know that narrative is a powerful way to learn and these meetings are another kind of learning situation.”

So I urge you to speak out! Visit with your state and federal legislators, and tell them what you think about NCLB and other educational reforms and funding. The narratives that you share can make a powerful difference.

David Christensen, a former NCTE Executive Committee member, explains that the stories teachers tell to elected officials “become powerful testimonies to what works and what does not work in classrooms. They want to hear those stories—especially the legislative aides who do the lion’s share of investigating issues so that they can inform their senator or congressman. I urge everyone to tell their stories and advocate for effective literacy practices.”

To read reflections from Susan Houser, one of last year’s Advocacy Day attendees, check out the “First Person” column from the SLATE Newsletter.

For even more information on ways you can advocate for the best educational legislation, visit the NCTE Action Center, where you'll find additional tips and resources.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

21st Century Writing Habits

Today is National Handwriting Day, and its sponsor, the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association, suggests we take this day to get creative, use a pencil or pen, and uniquely express ourselves through writing. Not a bad idea. After all, NCTE’s Beliefs About the Teaching of Writing note the obvious, that “People learn to write by writing.”

But, today, it’s all-together possible that many students are busy writing not with pens or pencils or even with crayons or spray paint or lipstick. They’re using computers or cell phones or message boards, they’re texting each other, and they’re posting to MySpace, YouTube, Facebook and other social networking sites. PBS’s Frontline program “Growing Up Online” notes that for some kids today, writing an email is as old-fashioned as writing by hand! These students show us that, in fact, how we write and the tools we use to get the job done are evolving--well…as I write. And, these students’ writing activities certainly must give us pause as we think about how we teach writing to our students.

While today some will decry the loss of readable script developed through the Palmer Method, others will acknowledge that for many of our students, learning to write means learning what to say in writing or how to say it, not how to form their letters with pen or pencil. We might join the teachers interviewed for the news article “Writing off cursive” to think about the meaning of handwriting to our students and to their ability to communicate in writing.

For me, writing in my journal still means using not only my hand and a pen, but a special sort of pen that flows across the paper as I hope my words will do. Yet, here I comfortably sit composing this blog on my computer, and enjoying, along with the consummate ability to create, move, and erase text, being able to insert hyperlinks to bolster my message. And, for all of us who’ve read stacks of student papers, of course, typed papers trump handwritten papers in terms of readability every time. More importantly, according to “The effect of computers on student writing: A meta-analysis of studies from 1992 to 2002” as cited in NCTE’s 21st-Century Literacies – A Policy Research Brief,“digital technology enhances writing and interaction in several ways. K–12 students who write with computers produce compositions of greater length and higher quality and are more engaged with and motivated toward writing than their peers.”

So, today, let’s use this occasion to think about handwriting along with other ways of writing, and to consider just why we write and why we want our students to be writers, adept writers—always.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

21st Century Reading Habits

The BBC News article in this week’s issue asks, “Do you need to read books to be clever?” The emphasis in the article is on the word book. Fewer people actually read books these days, the article reports. They may read other texts, but they are less likely to read a complete book than in the past. The question is, however, does it really matter? Probably not.

Honor Wilson-Fletcher, project director for the National Year of Reading in the UK, explains that “because the cultural landscape is changing so much we need to recognise every variety of reading and acknowledge being able to read has never been so important. In other words, it’s not what you read, but how you read and that you read that matters.

While teachers usually realize this fact, do students? The literacy demands that students face today have changed greatly from those which students met even five or ten years ago. NCTE’s Professional Communities at Work Topical Resource Kit, Engaging Media-Savvy Students: Exploring Multimodal Literacies through Popular Culture and Technology explains:

Classrooms are rapidly moving beyond traditional notions of text. For years, teachers relied almost completely on books and other print texts—especially in terms of the texts that students were asked to compose. Because of the changes in technologies available to us today, however, texts in the classroom frequently include a much wider range of modalities—systems that people use to make meaning. In fact, a single text often engages more than one way of making meaning.

Today’s media-savvy students compose and read texts that include alphabetic- and character-based print, still images, video, and sound. They listen to podcasts, watch animations on the Internet, film their own videos, and compose visual arguments on paper and online. Reading and composing for these students includes such features as visual design, nonlinear organizational structures, and oral storytelling techniques.
(“Framing Text” 3)
Students interact with this wide range of texts using ever-expanding strategies for making meaning; yet they do not always recognize these many resources as legitimate texts or the act that they are doing as reading. By exploring the ways that they read and write in the classroom, students can extend their understanding of their own 21st century reading habits. An easy way to get started is to adapt the ReadWriteThink lesson Defining Literacy in a Digital World for your classroom. For an even quicker start, try my 21st Century Reading Habits Survey with students. After students complete the survey, tally the votes and invite discussion on what the findings mean about the way they read. You’re bound to learn more about students’ habits that can shape the activities that you complete in the classroom and students can explore why reading matters in the context of their own habits.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

This Year I Will

It’s the season of resolutions. We may not tell anyone our plans for the new year, but the media knows that we’re all out here trying to eat healthier, exercise more, get things organized, and generally improve ourselves and the world around us. To kick off 2008, I thought I’d share a few of my professional resolutions for the year (along with some related resources to get started with, in case we happen to share goals for 2008):

Okay, I have a lot of work to do in the coming year. There's an English Journal CFP due on January 15, and I can't forget that convention proposal. Time for me to get writing! And if you have professional New Year’s resolutions to share, please post a comment.