Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Teacher Learning and Professional Development: The Real Stuff

It’s been 25 years and a few days since the report A Nation at Risk was released, yet the concern about student performance in American schools still exists, including how American students fare in comparison with their peers around the world.

In the Christian Science Monitor article Despite 25 years of reform, U.S. schools still fall short (April 24, 2008), Linda Darling-Hammond notes that teacher quality is one issue the nation must come to grips with because teachers make the most difference in student learning. She cites the McKinsey & Company report How the World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come Out onTop.

Well, I knew that! But how do we make sure that teacher learning becomes central to the mission of our schools? And, for those of us in the classroom, how do we make time for ourselves to learn both alone and with our colleagues?

Like many of you, I’ve sat through any number of “professional development” sessions that were anything but—leaving at the end only wishing my colleagues and I had been given that time to work together on how best to help our students learn. NCTE’s “Principles of Professional Development” reaffirm that wish and on Advocacy Day NCTE asked for support for high quality teachers in our high-need schools.

But in reality, it’s the everyday that counts. We want and need to work together with our colleagues, learning and practicing the best ways to support our students’ learning. We can do this through NCTE’s Pathways Professional Development Program at our own pace, within our own school, and with participants from across the nation. We can pursue a variety of inquiries in the Pathways for Advancing Adolescent Literacy or the Pathways for Teaching and Learning with English Language Learners, and soon we’ll be able to learn with Pathways for Teaching and Learning with 21st Century Literacies. We can enjoy a “best” model of professional development characterized by sustained activities, engagement with administrators, and community-based learning that will first enhancing our teacher practice and then lead to student learning.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Inspiration for Student Poetry and Prose

As National Poetry Month comes to a close, inspire students to write original poems with help from other texts, creating their own found poems. NCTE’s best-selling book Getting the Knack: 20 Poetry Writing Exercises explains the process of writing “Found & Headline Poems.” To compose a found poem, the writer searches for meaningful words, phrases, and images from an original text and then shapes them into an original work. It’s a sort of “quick start” poem—the writer begins with a ready sample of ideas, and simply chooses and arranges the work into something new. If the writer is using words only, you might think of a found poem as a sort of word collage.

A new teacher resource from the Library of Congress, Making Connections through Poetry, includes a gallery of primary documents that students use to compose and illustrate their own poems. The collections range across the entire span of the nation’s history and include specific touchpoints on such topics as U.S. involvement in national and international wars, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. The new ReadWriteThink lesson plan Rummaging for Fiction: Using Found Photographs and Notes to Spark Story Ideas (S) uses the Library of Congress site as inspiration to help students identify subjects, settings, characters, and conflicts for pieces of creative writing.

This technique can be adapted to any historical period or content area. For instance, if you’re celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday this week, ask students to use Primary Sources on the Folger Shakespeare Museum site as inspiration for their poems. Any site that includes primary sources or literary texts can be a resource. You might tap the Treasures in Full from the British Library, The Online Library of Literature, Historical Minutes from the U.S. Senate, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, or Letters and Diaries Online.

For materials that explore found poetry with all grade levels, visit these additional ReadWriteThink resources:

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Must I Write Congress?

I never know what to write when NCTE sends out reminders to write to our legislators. Here I am a writing teacher, and I can’t write. It’s not that I can’t think of anything to praise or criticize about the state of education in America. Of course, I can think of things. I just feel stymied as I try to compose. Writing to Congress seems like such a huge responsibility. How can someone like me explain to representatives whom I’ve never met why English language arts matter?

It’s very easy. NCTE provides sample email messages. All I really have to do is cut and paste them, and I’ve written Congress. Tips for phone calls are also available. All I’d need to do is dial a phone number and begin with the information on the Tips page. Making the process easier doesn’t completely explain why I must write Congress though.

NCTE has established positions on the following issues. Reading them not only gives me background information but also helps me realize why these positions are important.

NCTE provides me with the information I need to know. That essentially eliminates any excuse I have about not knowing enough—and tells me why these issues are important.

So must I write Congress? Yes. It matters to the profession and to the lives of the students we all teach. I can, of course, write my own, more personal message to my representatives, but I don’t have to. Writing to the policymakers in this country is as simple as copying and pasting.

I no longer have any excuses. What about you? I challenge you to at least copy and paste an email message to one representative and report back here via the comments. Let’s see how many of us are willing to help do what it takes to improve education in the United States.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Helping Families Support Readers

Encouraging families to support children and teens as readers is important—whether your community is getting ready for a Big Read project or you’re just encouraging students to keep reading when they are at home. The Why Summer Reading? page on ReadWriteThink’s Learning Beyond the Classroom site explains, “a passion for reading and writing can help children and teens find ways to understand not only different cultures and worlds but also themselves.” Further, the NCTE Guideline “On Reading, Learning to Read, and Effective Reading Instruction: An Overview of What We Know and How We Know It” tells us:

The more children read, the better readers they become. Children read more when they have access to engaging, age appropriate books, magazines, newspapers, computers and other reading materials. They read more on topics that interest them than on topics that do not interest them.

Reading supports writing development and writing supports reading development. For example, through reading readers learn the power of a strong introduction and eventually use such knowledge as they write their own pieces. Conversely, writing develops awareness of the structures of language, the organization of text, and spelling patterns which in turn contributes to reading proficiency.
So we know that reading matters, but how can we support families who encourage children and teens to read at home?
  • Share the NCTE description of What Can Family Literacy Look Like to provide families with a list of short, everyday activities that can support readers and writers.

  • Read the Language Arts article “Exploring Our Literacy Beliefs with Families” to learn more about the literacy beliefs of families share with others during a series of family literacy workshops. Use the information to shape your interactions with family adults.

  • Visit ReadWriteThink’s Learning Beyond the Classroom for reading and writing activities that you can share with families and other caregivers. Visit the Why Summer Reading? page on the site for a link to a printable flyer you can send home with students and share with others in your educational community.

  • Be sure to show families the related booklists available on the ReadWriteThink’s Learning Beyond the Classroom grade level pages for suggested best books to find in the local library or bookstore.

  • Check out ReadWriteThink’s new podcasts and videos for reviews of books for ages 4–11 and ages 12–18 as well as videos that suggest reading strategies that families can use with children.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Being and Becoming Language Learners

The March Language Arts includes an article by Tasha Tropp Laman and Katie Van Sluys that explores how “children in multilingual, multiage classrooms participate in and transform the writing workshops” (265). In “Being and Becoming: Multilingual Writers’ Practices,” Laman and Van Sluys describe two multiage classrooms where students participate in daily writing workshop activities, typically beginning with a mini-lesson and then allowing time for students to read, write, and collaborate while teachers met with individual writers and small groups.

Using examples from students’ writer’s notebooks and other student publications, the article demonstrates how “multilingual students in both classrooms transformed their learning communities and opened up new possibilities for all children” (272). What made the practices successful was the fact that “All students were positioned as language learners” in the two classrooms:

Multilingual students explored connections, differences, and insights into their understandings of their first language(s) and those they were learning. Ms. Brice and Ms. Roberts [the two teachers] intentionally established curricular structures that repositioned literacy learning in general and writing in particular as collective and social acts. English-dominant peers also began to study and compare English with other languages . . . . This work was not spontaneous. Multilingual students shared their linguistic knowledge with peers as they leaned into one another’s notebooks during writing time, read their writing aloud during share time, and publicly displayed their writing during celebrations. These collective and collaborative structures repositioned first language(s) as significant and vital literacy resources. (273)
How can teachers find activities that situate students as language authorities? Students can take on the role naturally in classrooms where students are encouraged to collaborate and share their writing. Students in the two classrooms highlighted in the article were encouraged to choose the language (or languages) that they felt comfortable using, to use texts as models and springboards, and to investigate how different languages work. As they collaborated, students—whether new to English or not—all worked as language learners. And when everyone in the classroom is a language learner, great things happen!