Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Simple Ways You Can Be a Literacy Education Advocate

Take action during Literacy Education Advocacy Month, whether you have a few minutes, a few hours, or more. Each day this April, you can check the Literacy Education Advocacy Calendar for one advocacy activity. Get started now with the activities listed below.

Have only an hour or two?

  1. Visit your state or federal legislator and tell them what they can do to improve your classroom and school. NCTE has some tips to help you.

  2. Write a letter to the editor of your local paper that explains how the public can help improve education at your school.

  3. Read the 2009 Legislative Platform and write a blog entry about how you connected with one specific aspect.

  4. Search for new perspectives on advocacy by browsing YALSA's 28 Days of Advocacy. Find something there and adapt it to literacy education advocacy.

  5. Share this blog entry with colleagues, and encourage them to take action too.

Want to involve students?

  1. Review the responses in the Students Speak Up to President Obama, and then encourage students to send their own comments to the President (or another federal, state, or local official). Students can also use the form on the Speak Up site.

  2. Inspire your own class (or school) survey with the details reported in the Speak Up 2007 National Findings, a survey of students, families, and teachers on educational issues. Students can use local survey results as support for their advocacy efforts.

  3. Read YALSA's How to Get Teens Involved and find something you can adapt for literacy education advocacy at your school.

  4. Engage students and families in support of school library literacy efforts with resources from the Kids! @ your library® Campaign Tool Kit.
  5. Have students write letters to the editor about educational issues that affect them. ReadWriteThink has a lesson plan you can use to structure the activity.

Have more time you can commit?
Make plans to attend NCTE’s “Education Policy and English Language Arts Day” on April 23 on Capitol Hill. You 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.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Writing Poetry: Putting Chaos into Perspective

As National Poetry Month approaches, I have to make a confession. Though I find it rewarding and enjoyable to read poetry with students and deepen their appreciation of poetry through response and analysis, I never asked students to write their own poetry. Never.

There are a number of ways I can rationalize this pedagogical choice. Chief among those reasons is the far greater curricular pressure in high school to develop students’ ability to write about poetry rather than to create poems themselves. But, in truth, I was succumbing to a stimulus even more powerful than anything so logical: I was afraid.

I don’t write poetry. I have no formal training in how to teach students to write a poem. And, most significantly, I have no sense of how to respond to student poetry. With apologies to Edna St. Vincent Millay, adolescent chaos in fourteen lines was not something I felt equipped to face. I’m not even going to bring into the discussion the idea of evaluation (or, worse yet, grading). The entire process seemed beyond my grasp.

Then I participated in the Summer Institute of a the local Writing Project site and did what you’re supposed to do there: I took a risk as a writer. Given the freedom in morning writing time to ponder, compose, and revise—and with the knowledge that I could share this piece with a community of supportive and invested readers, or keep it private, or throw it away and never mention that I tried—I did it. I wrote a poem.

I’m confident that even this single creative act is enough to embolden me to offer students the chance to write poetry in my class. I certainly don’t have the answers to all the conundrums I posed—how to teach poetry writing, how to respond to student poetry, how to evaluate it—at least not yet.

But with apologies to another poet, now I’m willing to travel down that road that I’d chosen not to take before.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Celebrating World Poetry Day

At this time of year as a classroom teacher, I always looked forward to April and teaching poetry during National Poetry Month. I was usually successful in finding some poets and specific poems that resonated with my third and fourth graders. Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky were class favorites as was the poem “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll. The students loved the fun nature of poems by these poets. Their reactions were in line with one of the goals of National Poetry Month – to celebrate of the art of poetry and poets.

My students often used poets and poems as inspiration in their own writing, and they certainly enjoyed performing their poems for others. One year, I worked with some colleagues to organize a “Poetry Day” for our classes where we spent all day reading, writing, and performing poetry. Looking back, although we all enjoyed the poems we read, there were certainly more poets we should have explored from around the world. World Poetry Day is a good day to discover poets that may be new to you and your students.

World Poetry Day is held annually on March 21. It was originally declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1999. The purpose of the day is to promote the reading, writing, publishing and teaching of poetry throughout the world. When UNESCO declared March 21 as World Poetry Day, the stated goal was to “give fresh recognition and impetus to national, regional and international poetry movements.” To mark this year’s World Poetry Day, UNESCO will pay tribute to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who was also a Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature.

With my class, I would begin by researching more about Pablo Neruda – where did he come from, when did he live, what was his inspiration?

  • My students would discover that Neruda always wrote using green ink, the color of hope. I would encourage my students to choose a color to write in and have them explain their choice. I think I would choose a metallic silver pen for my own writing. I would love how my writing would shimmer!
  • We would examine his poem “Ode To Conger Chowder” and read about the ingredients and dishes native to Chile. I would encourage my students to write a poem about a recipe native to their own state or country. I would love to write a poem about my grandmother’s rhubarb pudding, made from the strawberry rhubarb she grew on the farm.
  • My students and I would learn together more about the time and place in which Neruda lived and how that may have affected his writing. What was Chile like in the early to mid-1900s? If we wrote about our world today, what would we choose to write about?
  • The class would also learn that Pablo Neruda was very involved in politics throughout his life. He died in 1973, two weeks after a change in government in Chile. My students and I could write a poem in the voice of Neruda, reacting to this change.
There are so many possibilities with poetry. Reading, writing, and performing are obvious choices. How else can poetry be part of the curriculum? Find a poet unknown to the class and engage in an inquiry project. Learn as much as you can and share with others. Find poets and poems that students can make personal connections to – how do they see themselves represented? Much like the celebration with my students, how can poems be used to celebrate language and all of its richness?

So as March 21 approaches, invite students to share their favorite poetry, go out into the community and attend poetry readings, or find books of poetry at the library or bookstore that can help you celebrate World Poetry Day.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Value of Questioning Conventional Wisdom

At the risk of revealing just how bad I am at keeping up with the next must-read book, I’ll admit that I only recently finished Freakonomics. The 2005 book offers, among many other things, an interesting (if not terribly satisfying) exposé on teachers who cheat on standardized tests, as well as a report on the negligible effect that school choice has on student performance in a large urban school system.

More than any of the specific case studies, though, I came away from the book thinking about the need to question conventional wisdom, the concept defined by John Kenneth Galbraith as a version of reality constructed not out of truth, but out of convenience, self-interest, and the desire to preserve self-esteem. The far-reaching, often negative, effects of unquestioning adherence to conventional wisdom permeate the scenario that Kylene Beers presents in her recent report, The Genteel Unschooling of America’s Poor.

The viewpoints held by the administrators and teachers in Beers's report are informed by the accepted truth that the students at the under-resourced urban school do best with (and, in fact, need) highly structured, rule-based, rote learning and aren't the “right kind of kids” for learning experiences that require or lead to higher level critical thinking.

In some ways, it’s difficult to blame the individual participants in the processes Beers describes. After all, what teacher or administrator wouldn’t be tempted to cling to a version of the truth that props up his or her self-esteem and seemingly validates the work he or she is doing—especially when federal, state, and district mandates and initiatives seem to be supporting that view?

Education, however, has never been about the self-esteem and validation of the ones at the front of the classroom. It’s certainly gratifying to be able to reach the end of a class period or school day and think, “I did a really great job with my kids.” But if success is measured in silent compliance and if hard work is gauged by completion of skill-and-drill worksheets, the teacher’s esteem and validation are as empty as the education the students are receiving.

Beers's report also reminded me of something from an even older must-read book, a passage from Hamlet that a colleague displays prominently in her classroom: “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” Don't these lines reveal what’s truly unfortunate about the instance of conventional wisdom Beers discusses? Just as teaching shouldn’t be about the validation of the teacher’s worth, education should never be about who students are when they walk in the door. The focus has to be on what they will know, what they will be able to do, and who they may be when (and after) they leave.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Why Are We More Positive Today Than in 1984?

According to “The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Past, Present, and Future,” teachers are currently more positive about the profession than in previous years.

To quote from the Executive Summary (pp. 22-24) of this 25th anniversary report, they “feel respected in society, recognized for their work and better compensated than they have in the past. They rate the quality of their schools higher, as well as their school’s academic standards and curricula.”

So what’s happened?

For one thing, according to the survey, teachers today have access to more resources, more professional development, and more professional communication than they did in 1984. For another, because the focus today is on student achievement, most teachers meet at least once a month to discuss student data with other teachers in their school. Teachers are using technology and the Internet for their own professional growth and to track data on their students.

Some NCTE members have told their own stories of change between their teacher-selves of yesterday and today through the NCTE Centennial Then and Now activity. How would your Then and Now story read?